Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd)
Amidst the ongoing clamour for the “Dalit” presidential credentials, the politically symbolic tag of the “first Dalit President of India”, is an inadequate and insufficient legacy for the erudite man from Kottayam district, who personified the idyllic, Indian Dream. KR Narayanan, the 10th President of India, dignified the highest office of the land and embellished its pluralistic, inclusive and democratic instincts, way beyond the calculus of his “Dalit” identity. The latter had realistically secured his nomination to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and made his selection, ironically, “untouchable” (securing 95 per cent favourable votes in the electoral college).
From being the favourite student of the legendary Professor Harold Laski at the London School of Economics,to joining the Indian Foreign Services at Jawaharlal Nehru’s behest, the intrinsic genius in Narayanan saw him serve as India’s Ambassador to Thailand, Turkey and the very sensitive, China. Academically inclined, he later taught at the Delhi School of Economics and then shone as the Indian Ambassador to the US and finally, as the Vice Chancellor at JNU. His political journey was no less impressive. Winning his moral stripes as the “clean politician”, he won three consecutive Lok Sabha elections and then got elected to the constitutional appointment of the Vice President of India. With an unmatched CV like that, arguably the most cerebral, humble and statesman-like President of India ever, is still popularly remembered by the political prefix of the “First Dalit President”, only. The fiercely independent-minded scholar and diplomat, nuanced India’s social awakening, economic emergence and the accompanying political tumult in the restive 1990s with gentle assertion. He defied notions of a “rubber stamp” President, albeit with unwavering constitutional equanimity. He alluded to the changing atmospherics of the office when he stated, “My image of a President is a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution.” He very presciently alluded to the moral angularity that the “conscience-keeper” brought: “There is a subtle influence of the office of the President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole”.
His exercised his discretionary powers in setting many reformatory precedents like insisting on “letters of support” before deciding the right to form the government, voting when in chair, personally intervening in the efforts to mitigate tensions with China after the second Pokhran Test, and insisting on independently expressing views sometimes contrary to that of the dispensation of the day. He elevated the stature of the office from a mere ceremonial to one befitting, the first citizen of India. The depth of his comprehension of the societal, international, economic and political landscape, expectedly put a moral reign and perspective on matters which till then were expected to be parroted from the “advice” handouts of the governments. His classic interventionist trait came forth in the speech he gave to the visiting US President Bill Clinton, when he profoundly and prophetically chided the hegemonistic attitude of the Americans. He said, “As an African statesman has observed to us, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by one village headman”, and then called the bluff of the lecturing and alarmist US government, that had earlier suggested that Kashmir had become the “most dangerous place of earth,” by stating, “It has been suggested that the Indian sub-continent is the most dangerous place in the world to-day and Kashmir is a nuclear flash-point. These alarmist descriptions will only encourage those who want to break the peace and indulge in terrorism and violence”.
No spring chicken on the topical matters of the time and their implications, Narayanan graciously chiselled and propounded the constitutional Indian stand, without any bluster, bravado or political taint. Though the activist “spoke” his mind, often to the discomfiture of the political classes, importantly, no political party could, or ever did, complain of any political bias or favour.
The gentle colossus was acutely aware and sensitive to the social ignominies and tribulations that he personally, and the millions of other deprived Dalits routinely faced. He would channelise and invest his hurt and concern in the genuine hope of the changing India. He believed his life journey reflected the transformation, “That the nation has found a consensus for its highest office in someone who has sprung from the grass-roots of our society and grown up in the dust and heat of this sacred land is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the centre stage of our social and political life. It is this larger significance of my election rather than any personal sense of honour that makes me rejoice on this occasion”. There were no demonstrated bitterness, violent undertones or couched political threats implied in his “Dalit” identity. It was a matter of plain reality, and one that he disallowed to be milked politically and morally.
Ignoring a handful of exceptions, the hallowed office of the Indian President has withstood the overtly-politicised and polarised environment of the day. Even though, most incumbents have had a political past – their subsequent avatar as the first citizen has been credibly non-partisan and beyond the regression and decay of the political classes and compulsions. While the Presidential elections are a wholly political process, yet, it is amongst the very few institutions that have exemplified the sobriety, dignity and correctness of constitutional conduct. Political and social identities like “Dalit”, need not be the defining identity, constraints or leitmotifs of Presidential tenures. The call of the day is to ensure that like the “first Dalit President”, it is the constitutional spirit, wisdom and stature that ought to define the President of India, and not just the “Dalit” identity.
(The writer, a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry, served as President KR Narayanan’s Military Secretary).
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