R. Venkataraman: He set the stage for coalition governments

By Shubha Singh, IANS,

Chennai/New Delhi : As the eighth president of India, Ramaswamy Venkataraman, known to friends as RV, had the unique distinction of swearing in three prime ministers — and heralding the era of coalition governments.

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Venkataraman’s tenure in the Rashtrapati Bhavan – from July 25, 1987, to July 25, 1992 – passed through one of the most challenging periods in the country’s politics. Aside from the instability of having three governments in as many years, it was a period of turmoil with the self-immolations against the Mandal Commission report, the violence during Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra and the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Venkataraman died Tuesday in a Delhi hospital at age 98 after prolonged illness.

In the 1989 general elections, the Congress lost its majority though it obtained the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. Venkataraman set the precedent of inviting the single largest party in the Lok Sabha to form the government in the event of a hung parliament. Accordingly, V.P. Singh got the opportunity to form the government only after Venkataraman sounded out Rajiv Gandhi, who had declared that the Congress would not form the government.

When the V.P. Singh government fell in 1990, the president went down the list of parties in the order of their strength and sounded out the Congress, the BJP and the Left Front before he invited Chandra Shekhar to form the government. He obtained a personal assurance from Rajiv Gandhi that his party would support the 54-member splinter Janata Dal to ensure the stability of the government.

In 1991, he administered the oath of office to P.V. Narasimha Rao as the leader of the largest political party in the Lok Sabha following general elections during which a suicide bomber blew up Rajiv Gandhi.

In his book “My Presidential Years”, Venkataraman explained his actions of November 1989: “I saw substance in the plea that a defeated ruling party should not be asked to form the ministry as it had forfeited the mandate of the people. But I also saw the danger of vesting discretion without objective criteria in the president.”

Venkataraman adopted the single largest party principle as he believed that any other action would require the president to use his discretion and that could be viewed as partisan since the president was elected with the support of the ruling party.

Venkataraman was born Dec 4, 1910, in Rajamedam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. He had his education in Chennai, obtaining a law degree from Law College. He married Janaki in 1938 and they had three daughters. He practiced law at the high court and the Supreme Court. He took part in the Quit India movement of 1942 and was jailed for two years.

Later, he specialised in industrial relations law and edited the Labour Law Journal in Chennai. It was his interest in labour issues that brought him into politics.

Venkataraman became a member of the Constituent Assembly and was elected to the first Lok Sabha in 1952. He became secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party in 1953. In 1957 he returned to Chennai and spent the next 10 years as a minister in the state government.

A confidant of veteran Congress leader K. Kamaraj, he often acted as his translator. He was known as a bureaucrat-politician because of his emphasis on development and meticulous attention to details. Venkataraman was credited with the industrialisation of Tamil Nadu when the state’s growth rate rose to the second highest in the country.

He was brought to New Delhi by Indira Gandhi, who appointed him a member of the Planning Commission in 1967. In the post-Emergency general elections in 1977, Venkataraman withstood the anti-Congress mood to be elected from Madras (South) constituency. He became India’s finance minister when the Congress returned to power in 1980. He was later the defence minister.

In 1984, he became vice president of India for three years before being elected as president in 1987.

(Shubha Singh can be reached at [email protected])