Wed, 2007-12-05 02:41
By *R.K. Bhatnagar - Syndicate Features
The eighth President of India R. Venkataraman (1987-92) is 97 having been born on Dec 4, 1910. After retirement from the high office 15 years ago, he is leading a retired life with his wife and three daughters in the capital. Except for minor ageing problems, the always smiling RV as he is affectionately known remains active despite advancing years. Dr. M. Wali, who is his personal physician since 1989 visits him three times a day for check up. According to him, his heart is as strong as that of a young man of 25 and he is doing fine.
Today, RV is the only leader in India who had worked very closely with Jawaharlal Nehru for nearly 14 years and equally close to Lal Bahadur Shastri. He worked with the third and fourth generation Nehrus -Indira Gandhi and Rajiv. Also with Atal Behari Vajpayee. That is indeed a long march for a person who started his public life in Chennai before the dawn of independence.
RV holds Lal Bahadur Shastri in high esteem. Their first meeting with Shastri took place in the fifties. Recalling that day, he says, “I was elected to the Provisional Parliament in 1950. I was hardly 29 and I came to Delhi with Kamaraj. One evening both of us went to see Shastri. He made me feel as if I was talking to an elder brother. My impression immediately was that here was a leader who has infinite capacity to persuade people. ”
RV is forthright in his answers to my questions on his working with towering personalities. 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 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 Bahadur Shastri, according to him, 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 and architect of the all round development of the Madras (present Tamilnadu) State as Chief Minister. Kamaraj had no conventional education but possessed the capacity to absorb every abstruse and intricate area of knowledge. He had uncanny ways of dealing with problems. Whenever people insisted on his doing something immediately he would say calmly let us see. In fact people used to crack jokes about his let us see answers.
RV has praise for former Defence Minister, Krishna Menon though he considers him as a most controversial politician. He had worked with Menon in the Indian delegations to the U.N. for nearly a decade. What is his verdict therefore. “Menon possessed a sharp intellect and equally sharper tongue. He had a mastery of the English language, which was the envy of his detractors. He had no inferiority complex and could cut or wound an opponent irrespective of his status”.
A great votary of coalition governments RV said that the time of one party rule in the country was over. During his tenure from 1987 to 1992 as 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 on governance, RV said India follows the cabinet form of government. “A coalition may be composed of different political outfits but once in power, the coalition should abide by Cabinet responsibility for all acts of governments. While parties could discuss different points of view within the Cabinet, no party in the coalition should criticize or disassociate itself from cabinet decisions”.
RV has the knack of picking up competent and sincere officers. In 1980, when he became Finance Minister, he chose Manmohan Singh as his Finance Secretary. In June 1991 he again helped Singh to became the Finance Minister in Narasimha Rao Government. He also helped both of them with the concept and implementation of new economic reforms. Earlier in 1984, he picked up Gopal Gandhi, now Governor of West Bengal, from Raj Bhavan in Chennai and made him Secretary to the Vice President of India and yours truly from Press Information Bureau as his Press Secretary first in Vice President’s office and later in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Leading a regulated life with modest vegetarian south Indian food he still takes a walk in the evening everyday in his tennis shoes. He still meets a galaxy of leaders and others in his study strictly by appointment. He is at his desk immediately after breakfast at 9 AM goes for his lunch at 1 PM and is again in back for his meetings at 4 PM. Punctuality and adherence to timings is still dear to him.
*R.K. Bhatnagar a former Press Secretary to President