July 15, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

The failed crusader

When I heard of Dhirubhai Ambani's death last week there was a sense of great loss and of sorrow. But I also felt that he had enjoyed a full and rich life, one that he could look back upon without regrets. I do not think I can say the same today as I watch another prominent Indian slip into the shadows.

President K R Narayanan is, of course, still with us, but his career in public life shall probably end next week as he steps out of Rashtrapati Bhawan. It would be presumptuous to offer the judgment of history on this "activist" head of state, but I also recall an American journalist once wrote that it was a reporter's duty to write the "first rough draft of history".

So, in that spirit, here is my take on the Narayanan presidency: he was a grandmaster who blundered in the endgame.

Although he will be best remembered just now for his failed attempt to secure a second term, there is much more to the man. His memories go back to an age that is now almost legendary. When India became independent, K R Narayanan was in London. The next day, August 16, 1947, Bombay's Free Press Journal carried his report from the heart of the British Empire. (Sadanand, the legendary founder-editor of the Free Press Journal, gave another byline in that edition, to M V Kamath, writing in from New Delhi.)

When Narayanan returned to India he carried a letter from Professor Harold Laski, one of his instructors at the London School of Economics. Addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru. It was an enthusiastic recommendation from the author of the Grammar of Politics. (That in itself says something of Narayanan; by 1948, Laski was a fervid proponent of the all-encompassing state forcing socialism down the throats of the populace. Would he have recommended anyone who did not share his beliefs?)

Nehru, always flirting with a fashionable socialism himself, was impressed enough to send K R Narayanan to be interviewed by three ICS officials -- Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, K P S Menon, and one of their British colleagues. Sir Girija, head of India's fledgling external affairs ministry, was left unimpressed. He allowed himself to be persuaded, however, by his colleagues who pointed out that a man who came backed by the prime minister could not be summarily rejected.

This was the beginning of Narayanan's long career in public service. His supporters often speak of his "distinguished career as a diplomat". I suppose you could dismiss this as the usual sycophantic hyperbole, but that would be unfair. Indira Gandhi, no mean judge of people, esteemed him highly enough that he became India's first ambassador in Beijing after full diplomatic ties were restored. (They had been snapped for almost 15 years following the Chinese invasion of 1962.) Later, he would be sent to Washington at a time when India's relationship with the United States was far from friendly.

As ever, fate would have the last laugh. The man who came up because of support from one prime minister and in the face of opposition from a Bajpai would end up on the losing side because he tried to face down a Prime Minister Vajpayee. (As in the past a Soviet-influenced Menon and a man born in Europe had backed Narayanan, so too would the Left and Sonia Gandhi.)

History tells us that the head of state and the head of government have not always got along in independent India. (Even if the relationship wasn't always as bad as in the days of Rajiv Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh!) But the omens were good when President Narayanan read the oath of office to Prime Minister Vajpayee. If nothing else, there were several in the Bharatiya Janata Party who appreciated how K R Narayanan had upheld the Constitution when the United Front ministry had tried to upset the BJP-led coalition in Uttar Pradesh.

But there were already straws in the wind indicating that President Narayanan had brought some of his Laskian baggage to Rashtrapati Bhawan. And while ideology might be admirable in a politician -- many of today's leaders seem committed only to themselves -- it could create problems in a head of state. Was it necessary, for example, to give such a free-ranging interview to N Ram, known for his left-wing views, on the eve of the golden jubilee celebrations of Independence?

It was not the only indication that President Narayanan seemed, at times, to be pursuing his own agenda. He seemed to suggest, for instance, that the principle of reservation be extended to the private sector. And, for a former diplomat, his speech at the official dinner for President Clinton was just plain rude; his graceless remarks on that occasion certainly didn't reflect the position of the Government of India. Nobody could deny that there was a certain amount of tension because the President was uncomfortable with the radical new thinking both on economic and foreign policy.

Such incidents made the National Democratic Alliance -- not just the BJP -- a bit queasy at the thought of a second term for K R Narayanan. But his crowning error was his decision to play the numbers game in the quest for a second term. Narayanan had tried to paint the image as a crusading president; suddenly he seemed little more than just another calculating politician.

History may be kinder to Narayanan than his contemporaries. Don Bradman got a duck in his last innings, but we still recall him as the greatest batsman ever. But does K R Narayanan boast a batting average quite as high as that of the Don?

The Presidential Election 2002

T V R Shenoy

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