June 6, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Alexander versus Narayanan redux

Can you recall any occasion in modern times, say the last 100 years or so, when the head of government of a nation about to go to war was not present in his country at the time? And can you remember any point in history when the heads of government of both potential enemies were present in a neutral capital? Given that both Prime Minister Vajpayee and General Musharraf were in Kazakhstan recently, many safely concluded that war would not break out just yet.

Obviously, I was not the only person in Delhi to reach that conclusion. That being the case, it was back to business as usual for the politicians -- and heading the agenda was the election of the next President. But before I tell you the curious story of how P C Alexander and K R Narayanan clashed precisely 10 years ago, let me put in a few words of caution.

First, irrespective of who the next resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan is, I am not at all satisfied with the hierarchy of succession. In the United States there is a precise and highly detailed list of who takes over the presidency in case of the incumbent's death -- the vice-president, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president pro-tempore of the Senate, the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury... In India, once you move beyond the vice-president and the chief justice of India, there is a yawning gap, and that is not good enough.

Second, in India we tend to let empty ceremony overrule security. If anyone saw President Bush's State of the Nation address after 9/11, they would have noticed that Vice-President Dick Cheney and a few senior legislators were conspicuous by their absence. That was a deliberate move to ensure that the work of government would carry on in any event. Compare that to the empty pomp of India -- a single surgical strike crashing into Parliament House on a suitable occasion would wipe out everyone!

Right, I promised you the story of how K R Narayanan and Alexander first became competitors for the top job. So, here it is:

In 1992, then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao wanted Alexander to be the next vice-president. This, however, was before he split the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Janata Dal, and sundry others -- which meant that he did not have the numbers in Parliament to get his own man elected, especially after the Left Front made it clear that it was backing Narayanan.

Narasimha Rao did not want a straight battle. His chosen levers were two prominent Christian leaders, a bishop and a well-known member of the laity. 'If you can get the BJP to propose Alexander's name,' the prime minister told the two men, 'I will persuade my party to elect him.'

The two gentlemen then went off to see L K Advani in his office at Parliament House. He was the leader of the opposition at the time. The two representatives of the Christian community then made their case before the BJP leader.

There had, they pointed out, never been a Christian president or vice-president in India though other communities such as the Muslims and the Sikhs had been so honoured. Alexander was an excellent candidate. As a clinching argument they pointed out that Narasimha Rao had promised his support if the BJP stepped out in front. Advani heard them out patiently, then thought a while before responding.

He said he agreed in a general way about giving a Christian a chance. Nor did he have any objection to Alexander. At that point in time, Advani and Alexander barely knew each other. Unfortunately, he added, there would be a major difficulty in convincing the party...

Elections to the presidency had been held just two months earlier to find a successor to President Ramaswamy Venkataraman. The Congress had put up Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, while the BJP had backed Dr G G Swell. Professor Swell, the BJP leader pointed out, was a man from the Northeast, belonged to one of the Scheduled Tribes, and was a Christian -- three characteristics not normally associated in 'secular' minds with the BJP. Yet nobody, from the Christian community least of all, had appreciated this. And so, Advani told the squirming Christian leaders, the Hindu Brahmin from the Hindi heartland had defeated Dr Swell. In the circumstances, he said, the BJP might balk at supporting yet another Christian -- especially one not really associated with the party.

Next, the BJP leader gave his visitors a lesson in politics. Rao, he pointed out, could well have backed Alexander openly. Instead, he had chosen to play a double game; he would either take the credit for backing a candidate from a minority community or blast the BJP for opposing a dalit. Or, knowing Rao, he would do both...

The two Christians had no answer to Advani's points. And thus it was that Narasimha Rao conceded that Narayanan would ascend to the vice-presidency.

It is interesting to recall this decade-old episode today when India's two principal parties have swung 180 degrees. The BJP, which loyally backed Narayanan to both the vice-presidency and the presidency, has reservations about doing so once again. The Congress, which gave Narayanan the nod at the eleventh hour in 1992, is now trying to boost his chances.

Moral of the story? As ever: in politics there are neither permanent friends nor enemies!

T V R Shenoy

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