July 26, 2020
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An Old Nehruvian

A clue to Narayanan's actions in coming days lies in his political and intellectual past

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An Old Nehruvian

LONG years ago, a generation of young men and women made a tryst with their newborn nation-state. From their midst came the first draftsmen of the Constitution, the first ambassadors of independent India and the first economic planners. And from their ranks comes our 12th president, Kocheril Raman Narayanan. They were the youth of the 1930s and 1940s, the first Nehruvians, animated by principles of anti-fascism and the welfare state, by the modernist political poetry of Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden and by the example of Roosevelt's New Deal in the US and of the William Beveridge Plan for economic and social restructuring in Britain.

 Says A.K. Damodaran, an old friend and colleague of the president, a comrade-in-arms in doctrine and profession: "Narayanan is very much part of a generation for whom socialism rather than any other doctrine was the great political principle." With the publication of Nehru's autobiography, a generation of young men were introduced to the thoughts of T.S. Eliot, Arnold and Auden. Bertrand Russell and his thoughts on authority and the individual—how an individual in a free society must deal with the authority of the state—was another influential doctrine. Nehru was central, he was the hero and role model. In the debate between Gandhi and Nehru, these early young Congressmen admired the Mahatma but identified with Panditji. If Gandhi was the prophet, Nehru was the leader.

Nehru represented a whole world of values, a cosmopolitan, left-of-centre critique of the post-war world, also an Anglo-Saxon, Britain-centred view of politics. "We were very British in the way we viewed things, the rule of law, British parliamentary practices," says Damodaran. "We were also influenced by the example of Canada and France". "We were initiated into the great moments of world politics, the need to fearlessly fight on the right side and play, I suppose, by the Queensberry rules (the rules of decency and fairplay)," smiles another former colleague and friend.

Narayanan is a Nehruvian constitutionalist, a purist of the law but someone who is as committed to the spirit as to the letter of the law. "Narayanan would not fight shy of creating a greater consciousness not only of the law but also its spirit," says former diplomat, foreign service colleague and friend, A.K. Ray. "He realises that sometimes the letter of the law betrays its spirit. He is quite bold and quite fearless. Although not interventionist, at the same time he will not sit back." Ray recalls that when Narayanan was in the foreign service, he wrote a rather bold paper on the need for a new strategic frontier in the east along the Mekong river. "I told him that this was totally opposed to our official line and I remember Narayanan replying, well sometimes you have to burn your boats," Ray reminisces. For his pains, not only was his paper not accepted but he was sent off to Jawaharlal Nehru University as vice-chancellor.

A prominent jurist reveals that Narayanan may be bold but he is also quite conservative. He would never do anything flashy or macho. "Expressing the president's concern to the prime minister about the conduct of a governor is perfectly constitutional. As chief executive the president is free to write to the prime minister about whatever he wants," he notes.

Ray says that Narayanan is cool-headed, never gets flustered and is a rationalist and a progressive for whom the Constitution is not only about the past but a blueprint for the future. "He is very forward-looking," Ray opines. He believes that Narayanan sees the Constitution not as a dead but as a live document. "As chief executive of the country, he is aware that for the well-being of the country, the Constitution must be treated as a living instrument."

 In his Independence day speech in the Lok Sabha, the President said: "I am painfully aware of the deterioration that has taken place in our country and our society in recent times. Sheer opportunism and value-less politics have taken over the place of principles and idealism. We will have to strain our every nerve to purify our political, administrative and electoral processes and remove the aberrations and distortions that have come into the functioning of our democracy."

 As a diplomat he was equally committed. Former foreign secretary Eric Gonsalves remembers him as quiet and understated, very much a product of the London School of Economics, very clearly a follower of the democratic socialism of his teacher Harold Laski, yet at the same time someone tough enough to fight his way up from Uzhavoor village in Kerala to high office in government. "He was always strongly intellectual and ideological, had firm views, yet did a good professional job of whatever task he was given," says Gonsalves. As a student of English literature, Narayanan was a first class first from the University of Trivan-drum—and he read widely: T.S. Eliot and Stephen Spender, Bertrand Russell and Harold Laski. "Narayanan believes in a contract between the state and the people, that the state must encourage social movements for literacy and health care," says an associate.

Narayanan is part of the old intellectual Left, a generation perhaps rendered irrelevant by the demise of socialism and the rise of nationalism of caste, religion and community. "Our days are gone now," says Damodaran.

Yet in Rashtrapati Bhawan, the lights burn into the night. The president's staff relates that the president has begun to read late, often not sleeping at all. Kocheril Raman Narayanan has not given up hope. Sitting in his well-stocked library, his memory goes back to a certain speech made at midnight. Deliberating with jurists, he still remembers the old days when India was the only hope of those who were beaten and jailed in their struggle against imperialism. Whatever Narayanan does in the future, says an old friend, his actions will always be a reiteration of that hope.

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