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A renaissance man

In his respect for first principles and his ability to look beyond short-term gain, former president R Venkataraman outclassed many politicians of his generation. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2012 21:26 IST

Ramaswamy Venkataraman would have been 102 if he were still around. Considering that he died at 98, it is not impossible for him to have lived to that age. But he would not have been a particularly happy man had he just ‘survived’ to a centenary and beyond. He wanted to and almost managed to stay fit, physically and mentally, until his very end, on the day after Republic Day, 2009.

At an event held at New Delhi’s India International Centre on April 4, a fine work of analyses of RV’s life and times was launched by Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar. The audience included artistes like Sonal Mansingh and Shovana Narain, former administrators and diplomats like TN Chaturvedi, Abid Husain, TS Sankaran, R Ramaswami Iyer, Lalit Mansingh, Girish Dhume and defence veterans like Admiral Tahiliani. But barring K Natwar Singh and KP Singh Deo there was no politician to be seen, whether active or retired. Singh Deo had been RV’s minister of state in the ministry of defence, and was chairman of the editorial board that has produced the festschrift, so his presence had nothing to do with politics. Natwar Singh perhaps does not see himself as a politician any more. Politicians are, shall we say, very contemporary.

There are politicians.

And there are statesmen.

Not every politician turns into a statesman.

Some politicians have statesman-like moments.

Some statesmen have politician-like regressions.

Five kinds of courage, I would say, help a politician to approach statesmanship:

The courage to be unpopular with the popular.

The courage to be tough with the strong.

The courage to embrace defeat.

The courage to own a mistake.

The courage to be content in solitude.

Did R Venkataraman possess these five attributes? I believe he did. Did that make RV a statesman? He would not want me to say ‘Yes’. He was often called a school master. He took that as a compliment. He certainly had a classful to handle.

The word ‘finesse’ was crafted for his style.

As chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House was a model of legislative productivity, debating excellence and political exchange. But he was hard as nails when it came to enforcing order in the House and putting discourtesy in its place, whether from the Chair or in his chambers. I have seen him pull up members and even senior ministers if they had their backs to the Chair, if someone crossed a member who was on his feet, spoke an un-parliamentary word, or unreasonably exceeded the time-limit. Interruptions were frowned upon, and simultaneous interruptions put down with ‘Nothing shall go on record’.

I have also seen him effect the exit from his — the chairman’s — chambers a gentleman for egregious behaviour with the use of two choice words in Queen’s English. It so happened the person belonged to the then ruling party. But he could have easily belonged to the opposition as well.

‘Without fear or favour’ — na-abhinandandati na-dveshti — should be the epitaph for this remarkable man’s life. R Venkataraman had affinities, he had loyalties. But he also had a respect for first principles that go beyond oneself. These first principles included awareness that politics is larger than a political party, that the country is larger than politics. This awareness was his greatest asset in the steering of India’s presidency. His affinities remained where they were, as did his loyalties. His rootedness in the traditions of the Indian National Congress stayed where it had always been. But everything that was his by volition was kept in suspension, before the Constitutionally-mandated trust that had been reposed in him. That was not a matter of volition, but of duty.

The methodical manner in which he addressed the absolutely new challenge faced by the president in terms of a hung Parliament has been obscured by the heat and dust of the present moment in Indian politics. But discerning historians will record that when on the ocean of India’s electoral democracy the tides of repetition first changed their patterns, the hand that steadied the stern and held the ropes, and kept life-boats ready was of President Ramaswamy Venkataraman’s.

His honing, like a sculptor, the principle of calling the single largest party to state its being able or willing to form a government before deciding on who in Lok Sabha commands its trust will go down as a calibrated containment of a volatile substance.

It was like the old chemist’s medicine bottle which was strong, totally transparent with a sticker that clearly marked the doses and measurements. The manner in which the imponderables of election verdicts will play out in the future is hard to foresee. But RV’s procedures will be a reference point, a benchmark, on which future presidents can confidently rely.

It is however in his ability (which he shared with President KR Narayanan) to look beyond short-term gain towards long-term attainments that RV out-classed many politicians of his generation. As he did, too, in valuing collective achievements rather than individual laurels. ‘We lack the big team temperament’, he would often say. And there he would point to the examples of China and Japan.

Today, when the nation’s skies are not exactly azure, the air not quite ozone, when political collisions occur in anger and collaborations are entered into in haste, the example of this steadfast democrat and far-sighted constitutionalist is for us a veritable lodestar. And at a time when deep tensions mark relations between institutions of State and very often between society and the State, his example can help us see, feel, and show to the world that a liberal democracy can flourish in a strong State.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed by the author are personal