President K.R. Narayanan's tenure showcased an unwavering commitment to constitutional principles.
While escorting (walking, as he would insist) President K.R. Narayanan at the Mughal Gardens, when it was still called so, one could broach topics that could otherwise be construed as out of line. It was always a privilege to get unfiltered insights into the workings of this most illuminated mind on constitutional propriety, sensitivities, and morality.
President K.R. Narayanan was unpretentious, confident, and extremely open to questioning. He was visibly committed to the principles of accountability and responsibility as part of his public duty. He had initiated Rashtrapati Bhavan communiqués to initiate transparency and famously allowed an outspoken editor known to ask tough questions to interview him. He remained open to questions abroad and was known to work on his own communications, as part of the necessary checks-and-balances messaging to the government of the day. He gently dissented whenever he thought the constitutional morality was at risk, albeit, as he said, “within four walls of constitutionality”.
He was clearly uncomfortable with condescending and patronising labels like “First Dalit President” that politicians loved to categorise individuals according to the prevailing societal norms, and to reduce individuals to a “rubber stamp”. Instead, the man of letters framed the significance of his journey to Rashtrapati Bhawan as a testimony to equity in a thriving democracy, where “my life encapsulates the ability of the democratic system to accommodate and empower marginalised sections of society”. The vacuous labels given to him were simply inadequate and reductive for a man who held the most significant posts in the land owing to his merit, integrity and sheer brilliance as a professional.
Despite unimaginable socio-economic tribulations in his youth, the favourite student of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics had joined the Indian Foreign Service and hailed as the country’s “best diplomat”. He held ambassadorial posts in the United States, China and elsewhere, and the erudite academic later went from teaching at the Delhi School of Economics to being vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University. He earned his political stripes by winning three consecutive Lok Sabha terms from Kerala (despite it being a Left bastion) and then joining the Union Cabinet. Narayanan completed the loop of all possible offices by becoming vice-president, before winning the presidential polls with among the highest margins in the electoral college. With such impeccable accomplishments, Narayanan wasn’t beholden to anyone or to any partisan ideology, but only to his own conscience and to the book that he genuinely considered to be the holiest of all: the Constitution of India.
One evening, while escorting him, I asked why he seemed to avoid going to religious places or meeting godmen or even famous spiritual leaders? I vividly remember him taking more than a few seconds to respond to the unexpected question. After walking for a few seconds in silence, he stopped and acknowledged that he did avoid doing so as he felt that as the conscience-keeper of the Constitution and its lofty spirit, it was perhaps best. He then alluded to subliminal, lingering and conflicting wounds of religiosity that naturally reside in a 5,000-year civilisation, and that as a constitutional person, it was important that he wasn’t adding weight to any side of conflicting perceptions. Every perception mattered, equally. For him the imagined past could derail the progress of the future.
K.R. Narayanan was that rare being who walked the talk of his personal beliefs, by not going to any religious place or ascribing any role onto any religious event during his term. He was acutely conscious of the power of optics, and used it to only suggest inclusivity, healing and reforms. His undeniable background was a fact, and yet not a means for bitterness, convenient invocations or even aggrandisement, but only to reiterate the power of possibilities with the Indian Constitution, if pursued earnestly.
He was to famously countenance revisionism, reimagination and reinterpretation of doing away with parts of the Constitution by sagely positing: “Has the Constitution failed us or have we failed the Constitution?”. India then had an equally committed constitutionalist in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who quietly buried the murmurs, recognising the import of Narayanan’s subtle message.
In a situation that now seems unimaginable, K.R. Narayanan frequently expressed concerns to the PMO and these were handled by two people who truly believed in the necessity of healthy disagreements and believing at the end of the day, they were on the same team. If one had constraints of constitutional rectitude in expression, the other perhaps had partisan considerations and postures to maintain; yet Narayanan spoke on matters like the 2002 riots (as did Vajpayee) and his restrained and “distanced” position on all religious matters were duly respected. It was equally to Prime Minister Vajpayee’s large-heartedness and inherent decency that K.R. Narayanan was allowed to be so. The proverbial midnight oil burnt bright till late at Rashtrapati Bhavan, as Narayanan worked and chiselled draft speeches to convey restorative and reassuring commitments to the Constitution of India, and act as the functioning means of checks and balances in a democracy.
He, perhaps more than most, would have seen all sides of organised religion and its power over people and impact over the proverbial “others”. Hence the need to maintain an official, avowed, and respectful “distance” from all matters of faith, while recognising the cultures of individual practitioners who were free to partake in a non-discriminatory and non-imposing way. The carefully curated constitutional “Idea of India” had to be secular in both words and actions. This deliberate “distance” from any kind of overt religiosity did not alienate the highest office of the land from citizens, but perhaps strengthened secularism,
constitutionality and dignity for each citizen, without fear, favour or electoral considerations.