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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 8, February 7, 2009

Clarity of Thought and Rich Experience in Public Life

Wednesday 11 February 2009, by R K Bhatnagar


The eighth President of India, R. Ventataraman (1987-92), breathed his last on January 27, 2009. He was 98, having been born on December 4, 1910. After retirement from the high office 15 years ago, he led a retired life with his wife and three daughters in the Capital. Except for minor ageing problems, the always smiling R.V., as he was affectionately known, was in excellent health. All his faculties were working exceedingly well despite advancing years. According to his physician, Padma Shri Dr M. Wali, the senior physician in Dr Lohia Hospital whom he selected to serve him as his personal physician in the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1989, R.V. visited him three times a week for check-ups. According to Dr Wali, his heart was as strong as that of a young man of 25 and he was doing fine.

He was the only leader in India who had worked very closely with Jawaharlal Nehru for nearly 14 years and was equally close to Lal Bhahdur Shastri. In fact he held Shastriji in high esteem. He said:

I was elected to the Provisional Parliament in 1950. I came to Delhi with Kamaraj. One evening both of us went to see Shastriji. I saw in him a very small, very frail, very soft, very gentle and very affectionate man. My impression immediately was that here was a leader who was known throughout India at that time. He made me feel as if I was talking to an elder brother; he had an infinite capacity to persuade people.

R.V. had the distinction of not only working with Nehru but also with Indira Gandhi and Rajivji. In fact Indiraji selected him to be the Vice-President of India in 1984 and three years later Rajiv Gandhi elevated him to the high office of the President of India on July 25, 1987. This scribe was present at 6 Maulana Azad Road when Rajivji came to inform him about this decision alongwith Narasimha Rao, Moopanar and Kamalapati Tripathi.

With clarity of thought and a rich experience spanning over eight decades of active life, R.V. was forthright in his answers to a spate of questions put to him. He had the privilege of working closely with a galaxy of three generations of leaders, starting from Nehru to Atal Behari Vajpayee. In an exclusive interview, he said he had precious memories of working with them.

In his opinion, Nehru laid down invaluable democratic traditions in the formative years of independence. He cited the case of T.T. Krishnamachari, one of the ablest Finance Ministers, who was not directly responsible for any lapse in the Mundhra case but was indicted by the Chagla Commission. Nehru accepted his resignation on the principle of ministerial responsibility for administrative actions though it caused great anguish to him. Lal Bhahadur Shastri, according to R.V., was the most realistic, practical and down-to-earth Prime Minister. Never getting ruffled, he took cool and calculated decisions. His handling of the 1965 Pakistan “incursion” elicited the admiration of the entire country, particularly the defence forces.

The former President referred to Kamaraj as a genius, that is, a person with an uncommon degree of common sense, and the architect of the all-round development of the Madras State as the Chief Minister. Kamaraj had no conventional education but possessed the mental capacity to absorb every abstruse and intricate area of knowledge. He had canny ways of dealing with problems. Whenever people insisted on his doing something immediately, he would calmly say: parkalam (let us see)—in fact people used to cut jokes about his ‘let-us-see’ answers.

R.V. praised the former Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, though he described him as the most controversial politician. R.V., who had worked with him in the Indian delegation to the UN for nearly a decade, said that Menon possessed a sharp intellect and an equally sharp tongue. He had a mastery over the English language, which was the envy of his detractors. He had, in fact, no inferiority complex and could cut or wound an opponent irrespective of his status.

A great votary of coalition governments R.V. said that the time of one-party rule in the country was over. During his tenure from 1987 to 1992 as the President, he had to deal with four Prime Ministers (Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao) and appointed three of them in two years (V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao). His relations with each one of them, though coming from different parties, were very cordial.

Sounding a note of caution in governance, R.V. said that India followed the Cabinet form of government. Even though composed of different political outfits they should abide by the Cabinet responsibility for all acts of governments. While parties could discuss different points of view within the Cabinet, no party in the coalition should criticise or disassociate itself from Cabinet decisions, he added.

R.V. had the knack of picking up competent and sincere officers. In 1980, when he became the Finance Minister, he chose the present Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, as his Finance Secretary. In June 1991, he again helped him to became the Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao Ministry. He also helped both of them with the concept and implementation of the new economic reforms. Earlier in 1984, he picked up Gopal Gandhi, now the Governor of West Bengal, from the Raj Bhavan in Chennai and made him Secretary to the Vice-President of India and yours truly Press Secretary from the PIB first in the Vice-President’s office and later at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Leading a regulated life with a modest vegetarian South Indian food, he still took a walk in the evenings everyday in his tennis shoes. He still met a galaxy of leaders and others in his study strictly by appointment. He was at his desk immediately after breakfast at 9 am, went for his lunch at 1 pm and was again back for his meetings at 4 pm. Punctuality and adherence to timings were most dear to him.

R.K. Bhatnagar was the Press Secretary to President Venkataraman in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

- Former President of India
- ‘Pothigai’, Greenways Road,
- Madras-600028 (Phone: 836789)

December 5, 1993

My dear Sumit Chakravartty,

The annual number of Mainstream which I received just now is a fascinating treasure house of information. It has sustained its reputation as a bold, objective and informative journal. I am sure, under your stewardship, with the benevolent guidance of Sri Nikhil Chakravartty, the journal will continue to serve the nation fruitfully. Please convey my regards to Nikhil.

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely,

R. Venkataraman )]

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