India’s President-elect Ram Nath Kovind is only the second Dalit President of the country. He won comfortably by cornering 66 per cent of the Presidential electoral college while his rival, another eminent Dalit politician, Meira Kumar got 36 per cent votes.
The result of the presidential election held on 17 July was just a requirement for Kovind to take over India’s apex constitutional job and the coveted Rashtrapati Bhawan at the Raisina Hills in Delhi. But since he is the only second Dalit President in the country, he would obviously be compared with the first Dalit President of India, K R Narayanan who was in office from 25 July 1997 to 25 July 2002.
Former President K R Narayanan, described by Jawaharlal Nehru as the best diplomat of the country, was known as a pro-active President with an official run that saw landmark active presidential interventions and three of them stand out, his flat no to the then BJP led Atal Bihari Vajpayee government on the Constitution’s review in favour of Presidential System in India, his conscious decisions of returning the Union Cabinet advice on imposing the President’s Rule in states and his advocacy for weaker sections for their under-representation in Indian judicial service.
THE CONSTITUTION’S REVIEW
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to dilute the terms of reference of the National Commission that it had constituted for the Constitution’s review in 2000. After stern message from Narayanan who would go on to say that “we should examine whether the Constitution has failed us or we have failed the Constitution”, that any Constitution review process could only be undertaken within its basic framework only, preserving the sanctity of the Parliamentary System of India, the Atal Government was forced to change the basic mandate of the National Commission from ‘the ‘Constitution’s review to review the working of the Constitution’ with an assurance that the ‘review will be done without interfering with the basic structure of the Construction’.
The other most visible change that the former President’s tough stand brought was on who was going to head the National Commission to review the Constitution. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy L K Advani, reportedly, had requested former President R Venkataraman, a strong proponent of the Presidential System, to head the National Commission. But Narayanan’s reservations on the Presidential System, coupled with objections from the BJP allies like DMK and TDP on Venkataraman, the government had to shed the idea. Then it zeroed in on the name of the former Chief Justice of India (CJI) and former National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman M N Venkatachaliah. But Justice Venkatachaliah only agreed to head the commission after given assurance that the basic structure of parliamentary framework of the Constitution would not be touched and his decision would prevail in recruiting the other ten members of the Commission.
REFUSED TO APPROVE IMPOSITION OF PRESIDENT’S RULE IN UTTAR PRADESH AND BIHAR
This one is a fine example to see how President Narayanan rose above party politics to upheld the dignity of the post that required, theoretically, unflinching loyalty to the Constitution and unwavering impartiality in dealing with the political parties irrespective of the previous political affiliation.
In October 1997, President Narayanan returned the union cabinet decision on imposing President’s Rule under Article 356 in Uttar Pradesh for reconsideration. The United Front Government was led by Congress’ I K Gujral. It didn’t matter for Narayanan while returning the decision that he was a career Congress politician brought into politics by Indira Gandhi and was a Union minister in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet. Gujral government respected his decision and the BJP led UP government of Kalyan Singh escaped the dismissal.
Almost a year after it, in September 1998, Narayanan returned the Union Government’s file on imposition of the President’s Rule in Bihar. The government in centre was of BJPs’, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee which had recommended the dismissal of the RJD government in Bihar led by Rabri Devi. In a series of dramatic developments, the Rabri government was able to demonstrate that numbers were in its favour – 182 MLAs in a legislative assembly of 325 members. The then NDA government had based its decision on imposing the President’s Rule in Bihar citing corruption and Constitutional breakdown in the state but the clear majority in the Bihar assembly in Rabri Devi’s favour could not override President Narayanan’s conviction that dismissing an elected government in the case would be akin to acting against people’s mandate and thus violating the spirit of the Constitution.
These two decisions of President Narayanan remain unparalleled in the Indian political history. They effectively established the credibility of the institution of the President of India that it was not mere a decorative position with a rubber-stamp President to follow the diktats of the government of the day but an institution that housed the soul of the Indian Constitution.
ADVOCACY FOR WEAKER SECTIONS IN THE INDIAN JUDICIARY
K R Narayanan was vocal about under-representation of Dalits in the higher judiciary. He would often question the judges’ appointment and transfer process in the High Courts and the Supreme Court, something that even invited confrontation with the judiciary. Narayanan on record had said even if deserving candidates from the weaker sections were available, they were ignored.
He had written in November 1998, “I would like to record my views that while recommending the appointment of Supreme Court judges, it would be consonant with constitutional principles and the nation’s social objectives if persons belonging to weaker sections of society like SCs and STs, who comprise 25 per cent of the population, and women are given due consideration.”
Though the then CJI strongly refuted it ruling out any caste-based discrimination in the appointments in the higher judiciary, two successive CJIs, A M Ahmadi and J S Verma, had failed to recommend elevation of any High Court Dalit Justice to the Supreme Court, before CJI M M Punchhi recommended Justice K G Balakrishnan who was then the Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court for the Supreme Court in March 1998.
After the strongly-worded suggestion from Narayanan, the judicial circles started trying to figure out whom the President was referring to but CJI A S Anand, who succeeded Punchhi refused to elevate Balakrishnan as he was 53 then while the minimum age for the elevation to the Supreme Court was 55 as per the judicial convention being followed. Though exceptions could have been made for meritorious candidates, the Supreme Court Collegium ruled out doing so in Balakrishnan’s case who was finally elevated to the top court in June 2000 after he turned 55 in May 2000.
LIKE NARAYANAN, KOVIND, TOO, COMES FROM A HUMBLE BACKGROUND
President-elect Ram Nath Kovind, too, comes from a humble background as President Narayanan. They both had their share of struggle before they started on the path to success in life. Kovind though may not have as illustrious a career as Narayanan had who was an IFS officer, a career diplomat, a union minister and the Vice-President before becoming the President of India, he has been a successful lawyer, practicing in India’s apex court for years.
And like Narayanan, he has also earned a reputation of playing by the rule book while being Governor of Bihar. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is all praise for him the way he has discharged his gubernatorial responsibility in the state. Like Narayanan, he has been speaking for the weaker sections going as far as to join agitation against laws that he considered anti SC/ST. His clean and non-controversial record will only help him.
Let’s see if he can follow in the footsteps of K R Narayanan, extending the legacy of the Presidents who restored the credibility of the institution. In his post-victory speech, an emotional Kovind said he was going to the Rashtrapati Bhawan as a representative of every Indian citizen who worked hard to arrange for an evening meal. Let’s see where his conscience drives him.