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K R Narayanan: The citizen President

November 09, 2005 20:53 IST

Kocheril Raman Narayanan, the only Dalit and the only Malayali to have held the Presidency, often described himself as a 'citizen President' and a 'working President'.

Born in humble circumstances in a village in Kerala, Narayanan overcame several obstacles to gain a good education and job. At various times he had worked as a college lecturer and journalist, before becoming a career diplomat and turning to politics.

Narayanan had represented Ottapalam in the Lok Sabha, served as a Union minister before being elevated as the vice- president and then the President.

As President, he ordered the dissolution of the Lok Sabha twice - when then-prime minister I K Gujral advised dissolution of the House after Congress president Sitaram Kesri withdrew support to the government and when the Vajpayee government lost a vote of confidence after the AIADMK withdrew support.

He returned for reconsideration advices from the Union cabinet to impose President's rule in a state in two instances: one from the Gujral government on October 22, 1997, seeking to dismiss the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh. The second was from the Vajpayee government on September 25, 1998, seeking to remove the Rabri Devi government in Bihar.

It was during his tenure as President in May 1999 that Pakistan instigated a military conflict in Kargil on the Line of Control with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Towards the end of his term, communal riots broke out in Gujarat on March 2002. President Narayanan described it as a grave crisis of the society and the nation.

In an interview given in March 2005, on the third anniversary of the riots, Narayanan stated that there had been a conspiracy involving the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the state (under Narendra Modi) and the Centre behind the riots.

He said he had requested then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee by letter and by word of mouth to send the army to Gujarat to suppress the riots, but the latter had not done anything effective.

In another interview, Narayanan had also accused the BJP of scuttling a second term for him as President.

His tenures as Indian Ambassador to China (the first Ambassador since the 1962 Sino-Indian War) and to the United States proved to be of great importance to India's foreign policy. Relations with these countries had been strained, and his diplomatic work led to better understanding between India and these countries.

Narayanan entered politics at the request of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi and won three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha (in 1984, 1989 and 1991) from Ottapalam in Palakkad, Kerala, on a Congress ticket.

He was a minister in the Union Cabinet under Rajiv Gandhi. He was elected as the Vice-President of India on August 21, 1992, under the Presidency of Shankar Dayal Sharma. His name had been proposed initially by V P Singh (former prime minister and the then-leader of the Janata Dal parliamentary party), and this had later garnered support from the Congress under P V Narasimha Rao.

When the Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992, he described the event as the greatest tragedy India has faced since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

On July 17, 1997, Narayanan was elected President with 95 percent of the votes in the electoral college. Incidentally, this was the only Presidential election to have been held with a minority government at the Centre.

T N Seshan was his sole opponent and all major parties, except the Shiv Sena, supported his candidature. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh opposed him, alleging that he lacked knowledge of Indian culture.

In the general elections of 1998, Narayanan became the first President, along with his wife Usha, to exercise his franchise.

He had joined a queue of voters at a polling booth (a school within the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex), thus setting a worthy example.

His address to the nation on the golden jubilee of the Republic, on January 26, 2000, attempted to analyse reasons for the failure of the country to provide economic justice, particularly the rural and agrarian population. He also expressed apprehension that discontent might be brewing among the deprived sections of society.

Narayanan was born on February 4, 1921 in a small thatched hut at Perumthanam, Uzhavoor, the fourth of seven children of Kocheril Raman Vaidyar, a physician practising the traditional Indian medicine.

He worked briefly as a lecturer at his alma mater, University College, Trivandrum. However the appointment, customary for students who showed distinction, was only temporary in his case. The then-Dewan of Travancore, Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer, refused to give him a permanent lecturership and offered him a clerical job instead.

When visiting Iyer, Narayanan had worn a khadar jubba (which Iyer mistakenly thought was of silk) and a rolled-gold watch (which he had got as a present and which Iyer mistook for pure gold). The Dewan took umbrage at the attire.

Narayanan then asked for an audience with the Maharaja of Travancore, but the appeal was denied. He boycotted the convocation and did not accept his degree in protest. He received it with good grace about 50 years later, at the request of the University.

With his family facing financial difficulties, he left the state and worked for some time as a journalist with The Hindu and The Times of India. During this time, he once interviewed Mahatma Gandhi on April 10, 1945.

Narayanan went to England in 1945 and studied political science under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. He obtained the honours degree of B Sc Economics, with specialisation in political science, helped by a scholarship from J R D Tata.

During his years in London, he, along with fellow student K N Raj, was active in the India League under V K Krishna Menon. He was also the London correspondent of the Social Welfare Weekly published by K M Munshi.

He joined the Indian Foreign Service on then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's request in 1949 and had a career of high distinction. He worked as a diplomat in the embassies at Rangoon, Tokyo, Hanoi, Canberra and London. He was the Indian ambassador to Thailand, Turkey and the People's Republic of China.

Narayanan taught at the Delhi School of Economics and was secretary in the External Affairs Ministry. He retired in 1978. He became the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi; he would later describe this experience as the foundation for his public life.

While serving in Rangoon, Burma, he met and married Ma Trint Trint on June 8, 1951, who later adopted the Indian name Usha and became an Indian citizen. She is the only woman of foreign origin to have become the First Lady.

They had two daughters, Chitra (who has served as Indian ambassador to Sweden and Turkey) and Amrita.

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The K R Narayanan interview: `Vajpayee government supported the Gujarat riots'
The President in China
TVR Shenoy on KR Narayanan's presidency
President KR Narayanan's address to the nation
'I grieve the death of a good friend of India'
KR Narayanan's farewell address to Parliament
TVR Shenoy on the next President of India

Source: source