When President K.R. Narayanan started a spoken sentence with ‘Incidentally...’ his staff knew what was coming. Instructions of moment entered through that one-word gate, as did tickings-off for omissions, errors or even plain thoughtlessness.
Careful paper work had preceded President Bill Clinton’s State visit in March 2000. But Narayanan handed back one of the ‘less important’ papers I had given to him. ‘Less important’? This was the seating plan for the banquet he was hosting for his American counterpart. The President had spent at least a half-hour on the plan, changing it around in spidery snakes-and-ladders loops that brought many tail-enders to the centre. “Incidentally,” he said to me, “you do not seem to have applied your mind to this plan.”
“Incidentally,” he asked me in a moment of brooding earlier the same year, “have you kept any jottings or notes or suchlike about our conversations?” As I shook my head, he added, “Nor have I. They could be very useful later for references.” I followed up on his suggestion almost immediately.
One of the first conversations I recorded was about himself. “I was working with The Times of India in Bombay in 1945,” he reminisced, “when I got a Tata scholarship to the London School of Economics. Gandhiji happened to be in Bombay and I thought I should call on him and ask him some questions that were agitating me.”
The 25-year-old Narayanan posed two questions to Gandhi at Birla House, Bombay, on April 10, 1945. The first began with a comment: “All great men have a passion for simplification.” Narayanan went on: “You have simplified the nature of human conflict as between violence and non-violence, truth and untruth, right and wrong...” And then he put the question: “But in life is not the conflict between one right and another right or between one truth and another truth?”
The existential question received an indirect answer. But the practical one that followed solved a hard, personal dilemma for the young man on the eve of his departure for London. The question was: “How can a Harijan who goes abroad best serve his country and community from abroad?” “He cannot serve the one without serving the other,” Gandhi replied, adding “Abroad you will say it is a domestic question which you are determined to solve for yourselves.”
Gandhi could not have known that the young Keralan was to become, in time, the tenth president of India and would confront these two questions, both as Head of State and as Kocheril Raman Narayanan.
During his State visit to France in 2000, before he could engage President Jacques Chirac in bilateral discussions, President Narayanan had a momentary preoccupation with an issue that connected him directly to the second question he had posed to Gandhi. As I went to brief Narayanan on some routine matters, his Aide-de-Camp (AdC) met me at the doorstep, holding that morning’s issue of a Paris newspaper. “We have not shown this to the President yet,” he said. The paper had chosen, in a bold headline, to describe our President’s community origins in terms India has long ceased to use.
Neither the expression on the President’s face nor the timbre of his voice showed any reaction. “The West,” he said a few moments of reflection later, “continues to be fascinated by tales of grimness from India but...” and then, after another pause “...our own social evolution being what it is, there are enough sensationalisers among us who provide grist to the mill.”
The discussions at the Elysee went exceptionally well, with Chirac at his most artful, Narayanan at his most articulate and that morning’s story figuring nowhere in the proceedings. I felt an immense pride in the Head of our State overcoming a personal inner turmoil within minutes and serving India’s representation abroad with rare sophistication. Gandhi’s advice to him 55 years earlier had not been wasted.
An individual can resolve the conflict between one right path and another through his or her instincts. But what about a State? Does the State have instincts that help it choose one of the two, or does it rely on objective reasoning alone?
In a totalitarian regime, the supremo’s instinct decides everything. But to the extent that a democracy elects thinking, feeling individuals to office, its leadership cannot but use both intelligence and instinct, intellection and intuition. When a Nelson Mandela says he is against racism and adds “both white racism and black racism,” his individual instinct for justice is revealed. When, as President of South Africa, he sets up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his instinct, his ‘inner voice’, acquires the colours of the State, the new rainbow nation.
What of a nation? Is there such a thing as an ‘Indian instinct’? Is calm our basic instinct? Or is it rage? We witness both.
In India’s integrated acoustics three major forms of utterance can be segregated: the grammar of authority (sarkar/siyasat), the prose of faith-systems (dharma/mazhab) and the free verse of human instincts of the finer kind (svabhav/jazba). The first two, the grammar and the prose, are strong baritones. The ‘free verse’ of human instincts illustrated powerfully in Sufi compositions and in the writings of Kabir and Surdas, is soft. This is not just because it is un-pedestalled and unamplified but because it is plural, like a choir’s. The framers of our Constitution were aware of the importance, as well as the fragility, of this voice, the ‘inner voice’ of India. The preamble to our Constitution, beautifully rendered in Hindi as ‘Uddeshika’, is the seat of that voice.
There is a small bidi-making village in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district called Pachalgram. I asked a little girl standing outside her hut in that village if she went to school. And on her saying yes, I asked if she would please show me her school textbooks. She brought out a slim English publication and opened it on a page that carried the preamble to our Constitution. “Have you read this?” I asked incredulously. “Yes,” she replied in Bengali, and proceeded to read it aloud softly but clearly, in English. “We the people...”
This was Pachalgram, not Paris. It was a hut, not the Elysee. But I felt the same pride in this girl poised between childhood and youth, school and either its fruition or its possible abandoning, as I felt in President Narayanan as he led the discussions with President Chirac. To me the little girl’s was the voice of India’s instinct not under trauma, tragedy or even tension. It was the voice, the instinct, the intuition of anticipation waiting, in Longfellow’s words “with uncertain feet, where the brook and river meet”.
And I fantasised telling President Narayanan, “Incidentally, sir, this girl should get a scholarship to the LSE.”
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009
The views expressed by the author are personal