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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

The Copy-book President

Remembering R. Venkataraman On His 100th Birth Anniversary

Sunday 12 December 2010, by K. Subrahmanyam


President R. Venkataraman, whose 100th birthday falls today, called himself a copy-book President, and compared the role of the Indian presidency to that of an “emergency light” which comes into play only when needed. His style of functioning as a copy-book President was in sharp contrast with that of his predecessor, during whose last two years in office Delhi was rife with rumours of his attempts to dismiss an elected Prime Minister with a massive majority in the Lok Sabha.

Though President Venkataraman (R.V., as he was popularly known) had to deal with four different strong personalities as his Prime Ministers, he was able to have smooth relations with all of them. I had a glimpse of his role as an emergency light as the President. In 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi left office and V.P. Singh took over as the PM, India, as per the decision taken by Rajiv Gandhi, had assembled its first nuclear weapon. It would have been appropriate for Rajiv Gandhi to inform the incoming PM of the status of the Indian nuclear programme. Yet, so great was the trust deficit between the outgoing and incoming Prime Ministers that Rajiv had reservations about getting V.P. Singh briefed on the weapons programme. This placed Dr Arunachalam, then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the coordinator of the programme, in an awkward situation. He sought my advice and I suggested using R.V., at that time the President, as the communicator. Rajiv agreed to have R.V. briefed in his presence. In turn, RV got V.P. Singh briefed.

This was possible because R.V. and P.V. Narasimha Rao were the two senior Cabinet Ministers whom Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had permitted access to the progress of the Indian nuclear-weapon development programme. When a nuclear test was scheduled in 1983, and then cancelled by the PM under pressure from the US after they had monitored it through satellite photographs, it was R.V. who informed Dr Ramanna and Dr Arunachalam of the cancellation. My last meeting with R.V. was as the chairman of the Kargil review panel. He promptly agreed to meet the panel; we discussed with him relations with Pakistan and the nuclear issue during his time as the Defence Minister. On both issues he was fully forthcoming and his memory at his age—he was then 89—was very good.

He told us about his visit to Pokhran in 1983, and going down the test shafts. He also told us about the race to the Siachen Glacier in the spring of 1984, and how the Indian Army got there ahead of Pakistan, just in time. When we sent him the records of our discussion, he signed and returned them. That valuable record lies buried in the 17 volumes of annexures the government has not released as part of the Kargil Committee Report.

IT was during his tenure as the Defence Minister that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) launched our integrated missile development programme. He fully understood that the programme, along with the nuclear-weapon effort, meant the Indian preparation for becoming a major international player in the coming decade.

Though he was never the Foreign Minister, he had a background in international politics. R.V. was a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1953, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1961. He was a member of the UN Administrative Tribunal from 1955 to 1979 and was its President from 1968 to 1979. Therefore he had a wide understanding of international politics, and he was one of the few genuine realists of the Nehruvian school. In 1998, following the Shakti tests, the Congress party was thrown into massive confusion in the absence of such leadership.

In spite of the Janata Government of 1977, which was the result of a post-Emergency political tsunami—a one-off experiment—the era of coalition politics at the Centre can be said to have started only with the inauguration of the V.P. Singh Government of 1989, during R.V.’s presidency. Among his successors, K.R. Narayanan (in spite of his short career as a Congressman) and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam were non-political people who were brought in to be the President while R.V., Shankar Dayal Sharma and Pratibha Patil were life-long politicians who owed their careers and allegiance to a party.

Therefore, R.V. had to set the standards for a politician-turned-President presiding over successive governments drawn from different political parties, not just the one to which he belonged. In the 60 years of the republic’s history, the relationship between the President and Prime Minister has not always been smooth; after the first President, no incumbent was given a second term. Both R.V.’s predecessor and succesor had their tensions with their Prime Ministers. It is against this background that R.V. needs to be appreciated as a copy-book President, in spite of being a life-long Congressman.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author, a former Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, is a senior defence analyst.

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