By K. Natwar Singh
After much political bargaining, the 2002 presidential election produced a winner in A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — he did not seek the office; the office sought him
In his autobiography, the late P.C. Alexander holds me responsible for denying him the presidential chair in 2002. He also takes several swipes at Brajesh Mishra, at the time Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister and National Security Adviser. He states that the two of us colluded to keep him out without the knowledge of our political leaders. This is laughable. The two of us were not running a private enterprise. We were following instructions.
P.C. Alexander was a good man. He was an outstanding civil servant. He was also ambitious in a calculating way. I went all out to support his bid for the Vice-President post in 1992 with the knowledge of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose candidate Alexander was. A week before the election in late July, I hosted a dinner at my Vasant Vihar residence. My guests included Atal Bihari Vajpayee, K.R. Narayan, Shiela Dikshit and Vithal Gadgil. Chandra Shekhar could not attend as he suddenly had to leave Delhi.
Vajpayee was the first to arrive. When my wife saw Narayanan walking in, she asked Atalji in a whisper if he would support Narayanan. He nodded his assent. At dinner Atalji sat opposite Narayanan. I have been a staunch admirer of Atalji. He is devoid of guile and malice. I put a straight question to him — if Narayanan was a candidate for the Vice-President’s post, would his party support? After a pause he said it would. Immediately after dinner I telephoned Alexander and the Prime Minister. Alexander did not take me seriously but the Prime Minister listened and said he would keep in mind what I had said. Both Narasimha Rao and K. Karunkaran thought poorly of Narayanan, as did Alexander, but within 24 hours it became clear that Narayanan was unstoppable. Five years later Narayanan entered the Rashtrapati Bhavan.1997 marked 50 years of Independence. It was in the fitness of things that a Dalit should be the Rashtrapati.
In 1992, Narasimha Rao appointed Alexander Governor of Maharashtra. In 1997 he managed to get a second term that ended in 2002. In his autobiography he writes that he did not seek the presidentship but was invited to do so by the NDA. This, to say the least, is disingenuous.
In his pursuit of the presidential chair he displayed an extraordinary lack of political judgement. He became the NDA’s candidate. That he was free to do. What was astonishing was his taking the support of the Congress for granted. The Congress president had asked Dr. Manmohan Singh and me to keep an eye on the fast moving developments related to the election of the President. We did so discreetly and quietly. President Narayanan said when we met him that he was not sure if he would seek a second term. A little later he said he would contest if Alexander was the candidate of the NDA. This lack of clarity was disconcerting. Nevertheless he had the full backing of the Congress president.
Two issues need clarification — why the NDA was opposed to Narayanan and why the Congress was not supporting Alexander. I was in close touch with Brajesh Mishra. He gave several reasons, the main being Narayanan’s poor health. Narayanan had probably had a stroke and lost mobility of both legs. It was given out that he had viral fever. The President had refused to go on a state visit to the Philippines but had no objection to going to Sweden where his daughter was the ambassador. He also refused to meet Megawati Sukarnoputri on April 2, 2002. This, Brajesh said, was dereliction of duty.
The Congress president had nothing personal against Alexander, who had served her mother-in-law for over three years. The objection was political. How could the Congress support the candidate of the NDA? It was as simple as that. The second reason was that both President Narayanan and Alexander hailed from Kerala. One Kerala man could not follow another. Other States too had claims.
Events were moving fast. The Congress president met Prime Minister Vajpayee at 7 Race Course Road on May 19. She confirmed that Congress supported President Narayanan. The Prime Minister told her that the NDA was unable to agree to a second term for Narayanan. President Narayanan returned to Delhi on May 22 after undergoing Ayurvedic treatment at Ootacamund.On May 28 the Congress president called on him to renew her support for a second term. Two days later Prime Minister Vajpayee saw the President and told him that the NDA was not in favour of his continuing for another five years.
Alexander, in his book, writes, “At this stage a totally unforeseen development took place, which contained all the ingredients of a palace plot — the sudden projection of Vice-President Krishan Kant as a candidate for the Presidential elections. The principal characters behind this new move were Natwar Singh and, most unexpectedly, Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister”.
For a man of Alexander’s experience and stature to make such a preposterous observation does not do him credit. Chandrababu Naidu’s support for Krishan Kant was not a secret. Krishan Kant had been Governor of Andhra Pradesh. He was on intimate terms with Naidu.
Throughout his laboured narrative he relentlessly hammers in his theme — ‘Natwar and Brajesh’ were hell bent on eliminating him from the race. Both Brajesh and I were following instructions. Alexander keeps harping that we were flouting the policies of our leadership. It is fantastic nonsense to talk of the ‘Natwar-Brajesh duo’ acting on our own.
He even quotes India Today, which carried a story that a deal had been made — “Krishan Kant for President and Natwar Singh for Vice-President.” No one bought that story because it was pure fiction. Alexander laments, “How such a major decision could be taken independently by Mishra and Natwar and then hurriedly communicated to Kant and through him to Naidu without consulting the top leaders of the NDA baffles one’s imagination. Equally baffling was the fact that Natwar Singh could convey such a major decision without the concurrence of the CWC.” He should have known that I was a member of the CWC and kept the Congress president informed on day to day developments. I was also meeting the Vice-President several times a day.
To suggest that both of us were working on our own and carrying on a vendetta against Alexander is too outlandish. His whining and self-righteousness was out of character but it was, at the time, all too visible. Normally he conducted himself with dignified restraint. We all have our bad days. At a crucial time in his life Alexander was not fortune’s favourite.
President Narayanan’s dithering did not help matters. Uncertainty was creating confusion. Finally he was persuaded to opt out. A three-line statement was issued from Rashtrapati Bhavan. “There have been recent media reports suggesting that President K.R. Narayanan may be the candidate for the Presidential election of 2002. This is to clarify that he is not a candidate.” It took much time to draft these three lines. The draftsmen were distinguished political pundits from the right and the left.
The Congress declared support for the Vice-President. It was now evident that Alexander’s chances had receded. The NDA realised this.
The crucial day was June 8. Brajesh telephoned me in the forenoon asking me to meet him in his office in South Block. He informed me that the NDA supported Vice-President Krishan Kant. In my presence he telephoned Atalji. ‘Natwar is here and confirmed Congress support for Krishan Kantji.” Brajesh told me that NDA’s decision to support the Vice-President would be taken at a lunch being hosted by the Prime Minister. The others at the lunch would be M/s Advani, Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes and Pramod Mahajan. This would be a formality. In the evening the Prime Minister and the Congress president would meet the Vice-President to convey their decision.
I immediately informed the Congress president. Krishan Kant was already aware of this decision, through Naidu. At about 3 p.m. on June 8 Brajesh asked me to see him urgently. When I met him he said that the Prime Minister had not succeeded in convincing his lunch guests to opt for the Vice-President. P.C. Alexander was back in the reckoning. Here we had a situation which combined high-voltage muddle and mess. I told Brajesh that I would immediately convey what he had told me to the Congress president, but I was certain she would not change her mind about Alexander.
When Krishan Kant learnt of the NDA abandoning him, he was stunned and devastated. He died of a heart attack a month later. The Congress president arrived at the Vice-President’s house to pay homage. The saddest sight was seeing the 104-year-old mother sitting with her son’s head on her lap. There is no greater tragedy in life than for parents to cremate their children.
A.J.P Abdul Kalam’s name was proposed by Mulayam Singh Yadav. A totally unexpected name. But Kalam, who was not even considered a dark horse, made it to Rashtrapati Bhavan. He did not seek the office. The office sought him.
When Kalam arrived in Delhi to take his oath, Pramod Mahajan met him, requesting — it is said — that he get some closed-collar coats made and change his hair style. Kalam said, “Mr. Mahajan, closed-collar coats yes. Hair style not negotiable.”
(K. Natwar Singh is a former Minister of External Affairs)
Article published by The Hindu dated June 19, 2012