The New President – Some Fond Recollections

Mr.K.R.Narayanan has been chosen as the President of India. His choice was virtually unanimous except for an adamant token fight given by T.N.Seshan who could have shown better grace in conceding that he did not enjoy any measurable support amongst the electoral college.

Much is made about his being a ‘dalit’ in an age in which belonging to backward community is at a premium. This is hardly fair to a person who has impeccable credentials and unquestioned objective merit for the job. He has been a first class student, a teacher, a journalist, a diplomat of a high order, a Parliamentarian and a minister. More- this time a scholar succeeds a scholar – an unusual occurrence in politics. The elevation of such a person to the highest office of the land is something to rejoice about.

I must confess that I myself did not know about his affiliation or about his origin till this thing was played up by some political parties and the media. I have known him for a long time though I cannot presume to say the same thing about him vis-à-vis me!

My thoughts go to 1966 when I was a Deputy Secretary in the Government of India and he had returned from a posting abroad and was Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry. We were staying in flat no. 21-C of the Government colony which was then called Wellesley Road and is now called Bapa Nagar on the Zakir Hussain Marg. He stayed in the same block on the first floor of a similar flat. Because of the difference of rank and different services to which we belonged, and also because in Delhi social life is more official, we didn’t meet very often.

The first occasion for a social meeting occurred when the Frontier Gandhi visited his house and he invited a few neighbours. Our two young children knew about Mahatma Gandhi but did not know about the Frontier Gandhi and so they were keen to go and meet him. The Narayanans gave a small tea party and there was no visible security.

Sometime later Mr.Naraynan narrated to me the very interesting incident through which he came into the Government of India .

He was a student of the London School of Economics when the great Prof. Harold Laski – an idol of mine – was teaching there. Narayanan was a favourite student of his and just before he finished his course India had become Independent with Nehru as its first prime minister. Laski told Narayanan that if he wanted a job in India, he could gladly put in a word for him to Jawahar Lal, as he used to refer to Nehru. Narayanan was naturally elated by the offer. Laski asked him to remind him about that at the appropriate time.

When the course was over and time came for Narayanan to leave, he could not bring himself to remind Laski about his offer. He was too shy and diffident about it. He went to Laski to make his farewell visit and after an exchange of good wishes, Narayanan left his room feeling sorry that Laski had not remembered and regretting that he could not bring himself to remind him about Laski’s offer.

He had hardly covered half the corridor when Laski’s secretary came running after him and said : “Mr.Narayanan, the Professor wants you back”. Narayanan went back wondering what it was all about. Laski looked up and said to him :“Look, you did not remind me about writing to Nehru”. Narayanan said that he felt too diffident to do so. Laski immediately called his secretary and dictated a letter to Nehru to the effect that in the new and independent India he would need many young people of calibre and promise and here was one who could be useful.

Armed with that letter Narayanan came to Delhi and sought an appointment with the Prime Minister. At that time the Indian Foreign Service had not been constituted yet. Nehru looked at the letter, talked to the young man and asked the Secretary – General of the External Affairs Ministry (most probably) N.R.Pillai to see what could be done. After sometime Narayanan was invited to join the incipient Foreign Service and that is how his brilliant career started.

In due course Narayanan rose in the Foreign Service and served, inter alia, in China and the United States as Ambassador. In an early postings to Burma he married a Burmese lady who now becomes the first lady of India.

Narayanan is an erudite scholar and with a man of mature judgement. But he hides all that and what he wears on his sleeves is his utter simplicity and humility.

The time that I am talking of was when he was serving in Delhi between two spells of foreign postings, about 1966-7. Officers of the Foreign Service are allowed to import a car on their posting home. Narayanan had brought a Mercedes Benz. To maintain a car of that make on the meagre salary of Joint Secretary without foreign and travel allowances was not easy. One day Narayanan said to me that one of the tyres of his cars had gone bald and sought my advice as to what could be done. At that time the retreading of tyres had come up in Delhi in a big way and most of us used to get our car tyres retreaded to postpone the purchase of a new one, poor as we were . A new tyre, particularly, for a Mercedes Benz car at that time would have to be imported or bought at a fancy price. I suggested to him that the tyre could be retreaded. He gave me a look of innocence and helplessness as if I was talking of an arcane subject. I volunteered to take him to the place. That, incidentally, gave me my first ride in an M.B. After an ‘Ambassador’ it felt like a flying carpet. We drove to a tyre- retreading outfit near Lajpat Nagar and the elite German car was thus Indianized.

Soon after that he was posted out of India – probably to Thailand and we lost touch with each other.

In due course he retired and got appointed to various jobs. Later, he became an M.P. then, a minister, and Vice President of the country. There were occasions when I could – and perhaps should have – called on him, or at least written to him. But the ‘status’ gap between us had grown and I wasn’t sure whether he would remember me at all. I find nothing more demeaning than to have to remind a VIP that once we had known each other. I am reminded of Lamb’s celebrated essay on ‘Poor Relations’ on such occasions — ‘the one thing not needful’ — and so scotch the thought.

So I did not call on him or even write to him for the same reason that he could not remind Laski about his offer to write to Nehru for him.

But everytime he rose to a higher rung, we felt happy. And now that the gap between him and me cannot grow bigger, I would like to pick up the threads to say how happy and proud we feel that a person of such geniality, scholarship, maturity – and humility has reached the top.

Today, at this juncture, congratulations from an old neighbour would not be out of place. We also wish you a glorious tenure, Mr. President & Mrs. Narayanan.

Perhaps now I can also make bold to ask : Remember us?

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