Kocheril Raman Narayanan (4 February 1921 — 9 November 2005), also known as K. R. Narayanan, was the tenth President of the Republic of India. He is the only Dalit and the only Malayali to have held the Presidency.
Born in the southern state of Kerala, and after a brief stint with journalism and studying political science at the London School of Economics with the assistance of a scholarship, Narayanan began his political career in India as a member of the Indian Foreign Service under the Nehru administration. He has served as ambassador to Japan, United Kingdom, Thailand, Turkey, People’s Republic of China and United States of America and was referred by Nehru as “the best diplomat of the country”. He entered politics at Indira Gandhi’s request and won three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha and has served as a Minister of state in the Union cabinet under Rajiv Gandhi. Elected as Vice-President in 1992, Narayanan went on to become the President of India in 1997.
In India, where the office of the President is largely ceremonial without executive powers, Narayanan was regarded as an independent and assertive President who set several precedents and enlarged the scope of the highest constitutional office. He described himself as a “working President” who worked “within the four corners of the Constitution”; something midway between an “executive President” who has direct power and a “rubber-stamp President” who endorses government decisions without question or deliberation. He used his discretionary powers as a President and deviated from conventions and precedents in many a situation including but not limited to— the appointment of the Prime Minister in a hung Parliament situation, in dismissing a state government and imposition of President’s rule there at the suggestion of the Union Cabinet, and the Kargil conflict. He presided over the golden jubilee celebrations of Indian independence and in the country’s general election of 1998 became the first Indian President to vote, setting another new precedent.
K. R. Narayanan was born in his tharavaadu (ancestral home), a small thatched hut at Perumthanam, Uzhavoor, as the fourth of seven children of Kocheril Raman Vaidyar, a physician practicing the traditional Indian medical systems of Siddha and Ayurveda, and Punnaththuraveettil Paappiyamma. His family (belonging to the Paravan caste, whose members are assigned the task of plucking coconuts as per the caste system) was poor, but his father was respected for his medical acumen. He was born on 4 February 1921, but his uncle, who accompanied him on his first day in school, did not know his actual date of birth, and arbitrarily chose 27 October 1920 for the records; Narayanan later chose to let it remain official.
Narayanan had his early schooling in Uzhavoor at the Government Lower Primary School, Kurichithanam (where he enrolled on 5 May 1927) and Our Lady of Lourdes Upper Primary School, Uzhavoor (1931-35). He walked to school for about 15 kilometres daily through paddy fields, and was often unable to pay the modest fees. He often listened to school lessons while standing outside the classroom, having been barred from attending because tuition fees were outstanding. The family lacked money to buy books and his elder brother K. R. Neelakantan, who was confined to home as he was suffering from asthma, used to borrow books from other students, copy them down, and give them to Narayanan. He matriculated from St. Mary’s High School, Kuravilangad (1936-37) (he had studied at St. John’s High School, Koothatukulam (1935-36) previously). He completed his intermediate at C. M. S. College, Kottayam (1938-40), aided by a merit scholarship.
Narayanan obtained his B. A. (Honours) and M.A. in English literature from the University of Travancore (1940-43), standing first in the university (thus becoming the first Dalit to obtain this degree with first class in Travancore).
With his family facing grave difficulties, he left for Delhi and worked for some time as a journalist with The Hindu and The Times of India (1944-45). During this time he once interviewed Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay on his own volition (10 April 1945).Narayanan then went to England (1945) and studied political science under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics (LSE); he also attended lectures by Karl Popper, Lionel Robbins, and Friedrich Hayek. He obtained the honours degree of B. Sc. (Economics) with a specialisation in political science, helped by a scholarship from J. R. D. Tata. During his years in London, he (along with fellow student K. N. Raj) was active in the India League under V. K. Krishna Menon. He was also the London correspondent of the Social Welfare Weekly published by K. M. Munshi. He shared lodgings with K. N. Raj and Veerasamy Ringadoo (who later became the first President of Mauritius); another close friend was Pierre Trudeau (who later became Prime minister of Canada).
Diplomat and Academician
When Narayanan returned to India in 1948, Laski gave him a letter of introduction to Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Years later he narrated how he began his career in the public service:
When I finished with LSE, Laski, of his own, gave me a letter of introduction for Panditji. On reaching Delhi I sought an appointment with the PM. I suppose, because I was an Indian student returning home from London, I was given a time-slot. It was here in Parliament House that he met me. We talked for a few minutes about London and things like that and I could soon see that it was time for me to leave. So I said goodbye and as I left the room I handed over the letter from Laski, and stepped out into the great circular corridor outside. When I was half way round, I heard the sound of someone clapping from the direction I had just come. I turned to see Panditji [Nehru] beckoning me to come back. He had opened the letter as I left his room and read it. [Nehru asked:] “Why didn’t you give this to me earlier?” [and KRN replied:] “Well, sir, I am sorry. I thought it would be enough if I just handed it over while leaving.” After a few more questions, he asked me to see him again and very soon I found myself entering the Indian Foreign Service.
In 1949, he joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) on Nehru’s request. He worked as a diplomat in the embassies at Rangoon, Tokyo, London, Canberra, and Hanoi. He was the Indian ambassador to Thailand (1967-69), Turkey (1973-75), and the People’s Republic of China (1976-78). He taught at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) (1954), and was Jawaharlal Nehru fellow (1970-72) and secretary to the ministry of external affairs (1976). He retired in 1978. After his retirement, he served as the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi from 1978-80; he would later describe this experience as the foundation for his public life. Subsequently he was called back from retirement to serve as Indian ambassador to the United States of America (USA) from 1980-84, under the Indira Gandhi administration. Narayanan’s tenures as Indian ambassador to China, the first such high level Indian diplomatic posting in that country after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and to the USA where he helped arrange Ms. Gandhi’s landmark 1982 visit to Washington during the Reagan presidency helped mend India’s strained relations with both these countries. Nehru, who had also been the Minister for External Affairs during his 16 years as PM, held that K. R. Narayanan was “the best diplomat of the country.”(1955)
Parliamenterian, Union Minister and Vice President
Narayanan entered politics at the request of Indira Gandhi and won three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha in 1984, 1989, and 1991, as a representative of the Ottapalam constituency in Palakkad, Kerala, on an Congress ticket. He was a Minister of State in the Union cabinet under Rajiv Gandhi, holding the portfolios of Planning (1985), External Affairs (1985-86), and Science and Technology (1986-89). As a Member of Parliament, he resisted international pressure to tighten patent controls in India. He sat in the opposition benches when the Congress was voted out of power during 1989-91. Narayanan was not included in the cabinet when the Congress returned to power in 1991. K. Karunakaran, Congress Chief Minister of Kerala, a political adversary of his, informed Narayanan that he was not made a minister because of him being a “Communist fellow-traveller”. He did not, however, respond when Narayanan pointed out that he had defeated Communist candidates (A. K. Balan and Lenin Rajendran, the latter twice) in all three elections.
K. R. Narayanan was elected as the Vice-President of India on 21 August 1992, under the Presidency of Shankar Dayal Sharma. His name had been proposed initially by V. P. Singh, former Prime Minister and the then leader of the Janata Dal parliamentary party. The Janata Dal and the Left Front had jointly declared him as their candidate, and this had later garnered support from the Congress under P. V. Narasimha Rao, leading to a unanimous decision on his election. On his relationship with the Left front, Narayanan later clarified that he was neither a devotee nor a blind opponent of Communism; they had known of his ideological differences, but had supported him as Vice-President (and later as President) because of special political circumstances that prevailed in the country. He had benefited from their support, and in turn, their political positions had gained acceptability. When the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, he described the event as the “greatest tragedy India has faced since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi”.
K. R. Narayanan was elected as the Presidency of India (17 July 1997) with 95% of the votes in the electoral college, from the Presidential poll (14 July). This is the only Presidential election to have been held with a minority government holding power at the centre. T. N. Seshan was the sole opposing candidate, and all major parties save the Shiv Sena supported his candidature. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) opposed him, alleging that he was not knowledgeable on Indian culture, while Seshan alleged that Narayanan had been elected solely for being a Dalit.
He was sworn in as the President of India (25 July 1997) by Chief Justice J. S. Verma in the Central Hall of Parliament. In his inaugural address, he said:
That the nation has found a consensus for its highest office in some one who has sprung from the grass-roots of our society and grown up in the dust and heat of this sacred land is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the centre stage of our social and political life. It is this larger significance of my election rather than any personal sense of honour that makes me rejoice on this occasion.