Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan has been looming large in my thoughts. The reason is simple. India’s vice-presidency.
Ever since the dust settled on the names of likely candidates for the presidency, a lesser order of attention shifted on the likely vice-presidential candidates. Why ‘lesser order of attention’? Because the president is the pivot of national pride, as no one else is. In order of protocol, the president of India is at position one. The vice-president is at position two, and the prime minister at number three.
The vice-president’s ‘middle’ position is not to be envied. I am reminded of what Terence Huxley, the little-known middle brother of Julian Huxley and Aldous Huxley wrote: “Each Huxley brother is better than the other. This is the view of number two.”
A vice-president may not arrive at a venue a minute before the president, nor a minute after the prime minister. Being wedged like this is a test, a trial, an unending experiment in combining restraint with dignity, constraint with ease, promise with propriety.
And yet that middle position is unmistakably dignified and yet, unforgivingly nuanced. The vice-president is within touching distance of the ultimate but with hands folded in the courtesies of penultimacy. He must have the confidence of achieving the highest but also the decorum of not desiring it. He must have the éclat of prominence but also the unobtrusiveness of modesty. He must impress but not overwhelm, must impact but not overawe. He must take care to be silver before the president’s gold, agate before the president’s jade, panna before the president’s diamond. In other words, he must shine but not glitter.
To be a promise that does not presume, an expectation that does not assume, a hope that must remain mute, is no ordinary challenge. It is exacting.
Tehzib is a gracious refinement to practice, but a most exacting formula to have to obey. As Chairman of the Rajya Sabha he has to watch over that House’s deliberations as the Hon’ble Speaker does in the Lok Sabha. The Speaker, however, is the Speaker and nothing else. The Chairman is Chairman and also Upa Rashtrapati or Naib Sadar, when the Chairman says something it is not just the Presiding Officer of the Second Chamber speaking but the vice-president, the one who has been constitutionally anointed to step into the President’s shoes if an unforeseen vacancy arises in that office till such time as the next president is elected.
The vice-president must have the self-confidence of a crown prince but minus the assurance of succession, for the president is elected. He is the prince who must win, not inherit the ‘crown’.
Dr Rajendra Prasad had served as the country’s first president from 1950 to 1952 without any vice-president. His fame and stature were a matter of nation-wide pride. When the time came for the nation to elect its first vice-president, in the summer of 1952, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru put forward the name of Dr Radhakrishnan, those in public life might well have wondered if India really needed a vice-president. The world of scholarship however was thrilled, for Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s was a hugely respected name in that rarefied sphere. The people of India were not quite as familiar with the name and in any case expected little from the occupant of that decorous office.
And yet, within months, it was realised that the vice-president was not only not a decorous redundancy but a vitally useful acquisition. We had here one who, as the Amrita Bazar Patrika said in an editorial “Whatever the intentions of the Constitution-makers might have been, the people expect that his mature wisdom and varied experience will be fully utilised by the Government for the benefit of the country”. The people of India were not disappointed.
Though not without moments of disagreement, Prasad and Radhakrishnan moved like the two wheels inside a watch, interlocked and yet independent, keeping time together. Nehru made it clear to state governments that Radhakrishnan should be treated on par with the prime minister when travelling outside the national capital. And so when the vice-president travelled extensively and spoke with the sonorous ease of a an ancient teacher , the country sat up and listened.
He never let his growing influence go to his head, though. When a minister complained to him that the press had misreported him, Radhakrishnan said to the minister “It’s your own fault” and added “You make a different speech every time. Why don’t you do as I do — I make the same speech every time with only minor variations—- and all the newspapermen know it almost by heart and so I get reported correctly”.
This deprecating humour only added to his allure. As his biographer-son S Gopal has said, “Radhakrishnan lifted every public issue to the sphere where conscience sits in language that drove itself into the minds of his audiences.” As Chancellor of Delhi University, he conferred on Wilder Penfield an honorary degree. After hearing Radhakrishnan, Penfield said, “I would be prepared to give up the honorary degree if I could get in return the text of Dr Radhakrishnan’s speech”. But it was not about speeches alone.
His mind, steeped in tradition and in a belief in ‘the bounty of God’ was astonishingly modern and that combination helped him give India a sense of the vitality of its new journey in freedom. He was convinced of India’s destiny with greatness, but he did not lose his sights in the stars. He was determined to observe and assist the government of the day, to see the potholes ahead. And all this without giving up the tehzib of ‘number two’. He was outspoken without being out of tune and frank without giving offence.
He told Nehru that rapid social and economic change were crucial and (to quote Gopal again) “deplored the pampered living and confused thinking…and warned …against complacency”. Recalling the tenacity of purpose of olden days, he said that in social and economic affairs we must “Hurry up, otherwise it will be too late”.
Radhakrishnan was a flagstaff of a man, who embellished the temple of our Republic without coveting the shrine or even aspiring space in the sanctum. He did not wait in hope, nor fret in unhope. He was a tribune for the people of India before his elevation to the presidency made him, officially, one. He was the penultimate that the ultimate reached. He was the promise that did not disappoint in its fulfilment.
More than anything else, if he knew his office was silver to the president’s gold he also knew that his ‘silver’ encased sandalwood. The sandalwood of a Vedic detachment.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal