Twenty years ago, on the 17th of this month, India elected Kocheril Raman Narayanan (KRN) its president, the 10th in the line that had been inaugurated by Rajendra Prasad in 1950. The election was hailed not just because he had obtained a staggering 95 per cent of the votes cast and that, with a minority government having proposed him for the office, but because Narayanan was these five ‘things’: One, a scholar-diplomat; two, possessed of clear, independent views; three, no yes-man; four, nor a habitual nay-sayer, and; five, a man of impeccable integrity.
That he had educated himself against financial and social odds, had become a cherished student of Harold Laski and Karl Popper at the London School of Economics and become all that he had become – ambassador, vice chancellor, minister, vice president and now, president – by dint of his phenomenal merit, was known. That he was self-made was understood, appreciated. That he was Dalit was, for most, an appealing but adjunct factoid.
Only the incorrigibly caste-minded thought Narayanan being Dalit was either defining or determining.
India’s getting its first Dalit Rashtrapati of course made world news, as it should have. In Pretoria, South Africa, where I was working at the time, the fact was of compelling interest.
“When can you come?” The soft voice over the long distance from Delhi to Pretoria was tough in its substance. KRN was looking for a secretary. I had just done a year in my assignment as high commissioner and was cherishing every moment in Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation. I said as much, politely. “I know,” he said, “But I need you around here. There are certain things which, I am told, can be done only under the authority of a secretary…”
Who can remonstrate with the president? I reported at Rashtrapati Bhavan under a month. It was no party, working for that intellectual powerhouse. There may have been ‘certain things’ which had to be transacted under the name and style of the secretary to the president. But, in reality, the head of State was also in control of his secretariat which became his disembodied mind, his thought-vessel. And he posed questions to his staff, to his government.
Not surprising in the 77-year-old considering that when he was 25 he had asked of the Mahatma questions that put the answers in a shade. He had just been awarded a Tata scholarship and was going to London. “You have simplified for us the choice between truth and untruth,” he asked, “but what would you advise when the choice is not between truth and untruth but between two truths? And, when in England I am asked about the untouchability issue in India, should I reply as an Indian or a Harijan?”
When KRN finished his course of study in the London School of Economics with a first division, the Kerala people there threw a party to felicitate him. And Krishna Menon was invited to be the chief guest. Narayanan says: “Leaning on his walking stick at the doorway Menon said to me, ‘So, Narayanan, I hear you have got a first. You know, some people get it by a fluke.’ I do not know how but I managed to say ‘Is that how you got yours?’”
There is nothing that KR Narayanan got by a fluke, not his Tata scholarship, not his appointment with Gandhi, his ‘first’ at the LSE, his appointment to the Indian Foreign Service, his election to the Lok Sabha, the vice presidency, presidency. Not the fluke of birth, not that of high contacts. He got to where he got because he deserved to be there, was meant to do well by India from there, to speak with frank fearlessness to the State and society alike.
In his Republic Day address to the nation in 2000, President Narayanan said: “Be it the way cars and buses are driven on our city roads, the way garbage and particularly plastic garbage is strewn around, the way public servants treat the public, or the public handles public utilities, the manner in which we squander or pollute precious resources like water, the way owners of vehicles allow toxic gases to be spewed onto the air we breathe, the way we allow children to be exploited, the India of today is not a compassionate one…”
A president who can speak bitter truths like that is the president India needs, be he or she Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Dalit, OBC, Brahmin, political or non-political.