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R Venkataraman — President who stuck by rulebook to guide India through troublesome times

On his 11th death anniversary, ThePrint explores how stickler-for-rules R. Venkataraman tackled every arduous task in his multifaceted life.

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We should find means by which splinter parties do not enter Parliament and ruin democracy,” R Venkataraman said at a function attended by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

This came after Venkataraman had served as the President during a tumultuous coalition era. As India’s eighth President, Venkataraman, who took office on 25 July 1987, was witness to India’s fractured mandate that led to formation of a coalition government in Parliament. His participation in the Indian freedom struggle helped him in his tenure during these testing times.

Born on 4 December 1910 in Rajamadam, Tamil Nadu, Ramaswamy Venkataraman pursued law at the University of Madras. From 1942 to 1944, he found himself increasingly invested in India’s freedom movement and was also jailed by the British for this.

Early in his career, he took an interest in labour law. After being released from jail in 1944, he founded the Labour Law Journal. Labour and trade union activity soon became a stepping stone in his association with politics.

In 1946, Venkataraman was sent to Malaya and Singapore to defend Indians facing charges of collaboration with the Japanese occupation.

With his legal acumen, Venkataraman also helped draft the Indian Constitution. In 1950, he was elected to India’s Provisional Parliament as a member of the Congress Party. From 1957 to 1967, he served as the Minister of Industry and Labour for Tamil Nadu. Soon after, he joined the central government as Minister of Finance and Industry (1980 to 1982) and then as Minister of Defence (1982 to 1984).

On his 11th death anniversary, ThePrint explores how Venkataraman championed every arduous task in his multi-faceted life.

The ‘emergency light’ President

A stickler for rules, Venkataraman presented himself as the ‘copybook’ President, one who guided India through troublesome times. His term was also punctuated with the Bofors Gun deal, the assassination of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the stocks scam and the Defamation Bill.

He worked with four prime ministers during his tenure — Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandrasekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao.

He contextualised his role as President in India with the metaphor of an ‘emergency light’. He understood the limitations of his office, one whose agency would be exercised when the flow of power was broken. This agency could also be automatically switched off once the flow was restored.

On multiple occasions, he suggested a ‘national government’ that would consist of all parties in the Lok Sabha, in order to maintain stability. Further, he called for the need for a constitutional amendment to be listed in the Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha, so that a no confidence motion against the ministry should in the very same motion name the Prime Minister to succeed the incumbent, if the motion was carried forward.

Apart from being a strong advocate of the multi-party system, Venkataraman was also a staunch Nehru-Gandhi supporter. As President, his support for Congress often got him into trouble. He was accused of playing into the Congress party’s plans and compromising on the integrity of the President’s office.

In fact, half of Parliament once boycotted his opening address to legislature and demanded his resignation. The DMK’s V. Gopalaswami even referred to Rashtrapati Bhavan as “a branch office of the Congress Party”. The National Front called him out for “destroying the Constitution”.

Venkatraman’s ‘secret meetings’ with Rajiv Gandhi drew most amount of flak at the time and he was again accused of playing partisan politics. Despite all criticisms against him, Venkataraman chose to abide by the Constitution and firmly maintained that he stuck by the book.

Venkataraman had a way with words that helped him through these troubled times. Lord Howe said RV’s hold of the language helped him formulate “the only possible form of words which could deliver an agreeable conclusion”.

Venkataraman’s nudge to Kalam

India had begun doubling its efforts to strengthen its missile system by 1979. But only in 1982, under the tenure of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister and Venkataraman as Defence Minister, did DRDO’s missile programme flourish.

A missile study team was formulated under the DRDO, headed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. When Kalam presented his findings to Venkataraman, Kalam recommended ‘phased development’ of five missiles — the Trishul and Akash surface-to-air missiles, the Nag anti-tank missile, the Prithvi short range ballistic missile, and the Agni technology demonstrator.

It was Venkataraman who empowered Kalam to do away with talks of ‘phased programme’ and instead opt for these to be taken up simultaneously.

Living upto the legacy of being a changemaker in every aspect of life, Venkataraman became the first person to write a memoir on his days at the President’s office. At the launch of My Presidential Years, he expressed regret at the fact that neither Rajendra Prasad nor S. Radhakrishnan chose to write about their experience as former presidents. RV maintained that these memoirs could help the next generation analyse and understand the bounds of the presidency.

Also read: Chaudhary Charan Singh — prime minister for 23 days and champion of India’s farmers


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