The Working Precedent

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India's first Dalit President, K.R. Narayanan, changed his office from that of a rubber-stamp to a safeguard of democratic integrity.

The 1990s were tumultuous. Beginning with the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the succeeding Narasimha Rao government had to deal with a debt crisis that sent India into economic overhaul. The Babri Masjid demolition triggered bloody communal riots. Corruption scams sent the Congress into its largest electoral defeat at the time.

A Vajpayee-led BJP government took power in 1996 and kept it for a grand total of 13 days. But they failed to prove a majority and were replaced by a Janata Dal coalition.

What followed was a set of coalition governments that didn’t last very long. This was alleviated by presidents who swore Prime Ministers into power based on whether they represented the largest party in the Lok Sabha.

President K.R. Narayanan broke this trend in 1997. He demanded that would-be Prime Ministers prove their majority in Parliament as well as produce letters of support from their alliance partners. Following a crisis within the Gujral government in 1997, Narayanan advised the dissolution of Lok Sabha for fresh elections.

Vajpayee won again, but only held on for a year before AIADMK leader Jayalalitha withdrew her support, triggering yet another electoral crisis. President Narayanan asked Vajpayee to take out a Vote of Confidence in the house, which he lost. This led to both Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi staking their claims to the throne.

Narayanan refused to budge and go down the traditional route of authorizing the seat to the member with the highest majority as majorities had proved fickle in this period. Rather, he called for fresh general elections. Vajpayee won these and India managed to finish the 1990s with a stable government.

In exercising his discretionary powers, Narayanan proved that the President plays an important role in safeguarding Indian democracy from itself. He proved himself a level-headed statesman and orator, who balanced out India’s massive ideological shifts in the 1990s.

In an excerpt of an interview he granted The Hindu Editor, N. Ram, he explains his idea of the President’s duty.

…my image of a President is of a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution. It gives very little direct power or influence to him to interfere in matters or affect the course of events, but 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.

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Narayanan pioneered a series of firsts for the office of the President. From being the first President from a Dalit background to being the first to vote while in office (breaking the notion that the president was somehow apolitical), to exercising his discretionary powers to ensure a stable democracy.

His rise to power from a humble beginning lends hope to the idea of Indian democracy.

Born in a small village in Kottayam district, he was registered at school with a wrong date of birth (October 27 instead of February 4). Narayanan accepted it as his official birthday due to a lack of documentation.

He studied at a government school. Through a small scholarship, he had the opportunity to join the more expensive St. Mary’s High school after the eighth grade. With a fee of three Rupees a month, he sometimes struggled to pay his fees. Years later, as President, he would joke that his first experience in a high position was when he was made to stand on his desk for missing a fee payment.

He worked hard in school, and in college. He wished to study abroad and wrote a letter to J.R.D. Tata and was thrilled to receive funding from the J.N. Tata Endowment to study at the London School of Economics.

He returned from the LSE after studying under the renowned political theorist and economist, Harold Laski, whose tutorage helped Narayanan get a letter of recommendation to Nehru – who encouraged him into the Indian Foreign Service in 1949.

This began a long career in diplomacy that saw him appointed as India’s ambassador to Thailand, Turkey, China and the United States, across several decades. A brief stint as a Member of Parliament as well as in academia prepared him for the duties to come.

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Narayanan witnessed many of India’s policy maneuvers in the 20th century. His humility marked his personality as well as his stance on policy matters. It helped defuse tensions with China after the second Pokhran nuclear tests.

When asked if India had lost the moral high ground by detonating warheads at Pokhran, he said:

“We cannot and we should not claim to occupy a higher moral ground that any other country…I don’t think that nuclear weapons are necessary for the world, they should be abolished. But as a pragmatist, I would say that they can be abolished not in parts but wholly”

He allayed fears that economic reforms were haphazard and unsuitable for India.

We have to adopt policies, dictated by the circumstances and the necessities of the time…This is why we say that India’s liberalization is an irreversible process. Because it has arisen from the dictates of the needs of the economy… we cannot liberalize recklessly, in such a way that the balance of the society is upset and while some sections would flourish, make profits, the rest of the people would be left without employment and be helpless… They [proponents of globalization] want a frontier-less, borderless world, and that is a very dangerous philosophy which may suit the most developed and powerful countries of the world, and not those who are small and developing. That is why we are rather cautious in our liberalization policy. We went ahead in certain sectors. We went rather slowly in other sectors. And, this has helped us

The current climate could learn from his level-headed approach to economic and foreign policy. He died on 7 November 2005, aged 85.

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