August 03, 2020
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Thinking Aloud

Speech is action. And when the President speaks—in measured, Nehruvian tones—critics say it's political action.

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Thinking Aloud

A Nehruvian socialist presides over India's first non-Congress 'Hindu nationalist' government. K.R. Narayanan is cut from 1950s cloth, owing allegiance to the three pillars of the Nehruvian consensus: socialism, secularism and India's leadership of the non-aligned world. The BJP, by contrast, is committed to redefine the very consensus for which Narayanan stands. Between the First Citizen and his government, there could be an unstated clash of civilisations.

 The first-ever Independence eve interview given to the Left-leaning Frontline editor N. Ram has become controversial. The RSS wonders why an interview with a known Leftist was aired on the national broadcaster. "Eyebrows were raised about the interview and there was some discomfort," says Organiser editor Seshadri Chari. "We have respect for the President. But RSS leaders were unhappy with the way in which certain newspapers reported it. Obviously we are not as comfortable with him as with Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi. We know that he was once a socialist."

However, Chari says that after the transcript of the interview was read, there was some satisfaction in the RSS at the President's defence of the nuclear tests. "On several occasions the President defended the government from provocative and leading questions by Ram." But BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy questions the timing of the interview. "I have nothing to say about his choice of interviewer or of matters dealt with by him. But persons who have been responsible for choosing the date of telecast have not done the right thing. I learn that the interview was recorded 10 days prior to the telecast. Propriety requires that this interview should have gone on air much earlier than the date on which it was telecast. The timing has caused apprehensions in the minds of a few people."

 BJP president Kushabhau Thakre describes Narayan as a conscientious patriot. "In a democracy, everyone is entitled to a personal opinion which others are free to agree or to disagree with. As far as I'm concerned, the President was giving his personal opinion. I respect the President and I don't think he's overstepping the mark."

 Not all the issues raised in the interview were bland 1947-speak. "Communal mobilisation in the long run will not succeed in India because Indian society cannot be mobilised communally. Even the last elections have shown that communities, religious communities, castes did not vote solidly for one party," said Narayanan. Former PM Chandra Shekhar has declared that the President shouldn't have brought up so many "controversial issues", but legal experts insist that it is the President's constitutional right to speak his mind.

The statement: "My image of a President is a working president, not an executive president, but a working president," is no modification of the President's constitutional role, but an attempt to strengthen and restore the office to its rightful place. "The President has reclaimed what earlier Presidents may have lost," says senior Supreme Court counsel Shanti Bhushan. "The Constitution doesn't visualise a rubber-stamp President in the manner of Fakruddin Ali Ahmad. The latter failed to perform his constitutional role when he signed the Emergency order".

"It is, in fact, completely constitutional for the President to bring up controversial issues and to be objective and analytical. He has restored the President's prestige." Bob Murari, secretary to former President R. Venkataraman, says: "Knowing Narayanan as well as I do, as far as his constitutional obligations are concerned he is totally non-partisan and objective." However, another former Rashtrapati Bhavan aide says that though Narayanan may not have modified his constitutional role, he has subtly altered the fuzzy area of presidential convention. He has emphasised Rashtrapati Bhavan's "indirect" power to influence and exert moral pressure.

President watchers say Narayanan has taken advantage of the wider context of powers which the Constitution allows him, unlike earlier Presidents who may have played strictly by the rule book. Unlike Narayanan, Venkataraman in all probability would not have returned the order imposing Central rule in UP. He would have simply acted on the governor's report. Although Venkataraman returned the bill on MPs' privileges and Zail Singh returned the Postal Bill and carried on an open quarrel with the PM, Narayanan is creating a rather different presidential profile. No other President has ever queued up in public view to vote the way Narayanan has. His has been a subtle assertion of a "people's president": officially above partisan politics, yet a voting member of the public.

 In the interview, his disappointment at the blocking of the Women's Reservation Bill, championing of the rights of backward castes and backward regions, use of phrases like "counter-revolutionary" and "reactionary", advocacy of the need for land reforms (land reforms are an important Left demand of the liberalisation process) and criticism of "a new class of landlords" create the persona of a Left-of-centre, pro-women, pro-backward, anti-landlord, decentralising liberal. "Every President is free to interpret convention the way he likes. The Constitution lays down what the President can do but is silent on what he can say," says senior Supreme Court lawyer P.P. Rao, pointing out that Radhakrishnan and Rajendra Prasad were, on occasion, extremely critical of the government. "Democratic propriety requires that the President is not gagged."

YET, Narayanan's relationship with the Sangh parivar has not been entirely smooth. Observers say that as a Dalit, BJP literature on Ambedkar must be difficult for him to stomach. As Vice-President, he had expressed his anguish over Babri Masjid. Furthermore, during the Mohammad Koya Memorial Lecture in Kerala in 1995, Narayanan caused some upset when he said Adi Shankaracharya may have been influenced by Islam. Parmeshwaran of Pragya Bharati—a forum within the Sangh—had alleged that Narayanan was defaming the Shankaracharya. But subsequently the Vice-President, as he was then, reversed his remarks. After he became president, the VHP thundered that Rashtrapati Bhavan would become a centre of Christian activity as Narayanan's wife is a Christian. "But the RSS disassociated itself from the VHP position on this issue," points out Chari. "Our stand has always been that Narayanan deserves to be President." In fact, a turning point between the President and the parivar was his refusal to dismiss the Kalyan Singh government.

Krishnamurthy says he's not worried: "No conflict will arise between the BJP and the President. He has been honest with himself and said that he will not be a yes man. But if he feels any part of his viewpoint is likely to be misinterpreted, I'm sure he'll take corrective steps." If it comes to dismissal of a state government, he ultimately has no choice but to accept the cabinet's advice. Ironically, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee's descendants have to share the precincts of Raisina Hill with the septuagenarian heir of Mookerjee's bitterest enemy. "Our generation, Narayanan included, studied Nehru for a long time," says A.K. Damodaran, an old friend and colleague. "We were obsessed with political freedom. Perhaps we ignored caste or religion."

Says another former confidant: "I can imagine Narayanan having a conversation with Vajpayee and amicably agreeing to disagree. But with some of the others in the ruling party, I don't think he would have any meeting ground."

"The President was simply being very direct, spontaneous and matter-of-fact as he always is," says a close Rashtrapati Bhavan aide. "He thought he would be a mere rubber stamp, but he finds that his duties are rather more than that. That's all. And as far as bias is concerned, it was clear in the interview that on certain questions, he openly disagreed with the interviewer."

A.K. Ray, former foreign service colleague, says Narayanan is too canny not to understand the implications of his words. "I think he spoke to silence any criticism that he had fallen in line with Hindutva. He made his independence clear, and asserted that he isn't in the pocket of the BJP, that he was not going to accept anything blindly but will exercise his own judgement." By speaking forcefully and choosing not to paper over issues, says a lawyer, Narayanan seems to indicate he's not going to compromise his principles for the sake of a second term.

As political egos once again threaten to destabilise the government, the President's actions may become crucial. And once again, K.R. Narayanan from Uzhavoor will step forward with what he described in his interview as the "Nehruvian Dream".

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