Just Like That | The best President India failed to have - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | The best President India failed to have

May 05, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Most people will agree that Karan Singh — philosopher, statesman, writer and orator — was the best President our Republic never got.

I think most people will agree that Karan Singh — philosopher, statesman, writer and orator — was the best President our Republic never got. The sad part is that Rashtrapati Bhavan was within his reach. When the opportunity came in 2007, he was a fit 75 years old, and his party, the Congress, was in power, as part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Karan Singh is the son of the last ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh. (Twitter) PREMIUM
Karan Singh is the son of the last ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh. (Twitter)

At that time, he was a member of the Rajya Sabha, and the president of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), of which I was the director-general. He was, therefore, my direct boss. But “boss”, I think, is an inappropriate word. We were also friends and intellectual companions, and the relationship was one of great warmth and trust.

Our ties extended to our families. His wife, Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, from a royal family in Nepal, was 19 years his junior and a lady with rather strong likes and dislikes. But, quite inexplicably, she became very fond of me and my wife, Renuka. We became friends too with his children, Jyoti, Vikramaditya and Ajatashatru, and their spouses.

Karan Singh, although the former maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), carried his royal lineage lightly. Due to a childhood injury, which damaged his hip, he needed a highchair to sit on. The only time he would laughingly refer to his background was when he would say: “Kya karein, uunchi kursi ki bachpan se hi aadat hai” (What can I do, since my childhood I have been used to a highchair).

Although said in jest, it was a valid claim. In 1949, at the age of 18, he became the prince regent of J&K, after his father, Hari Singh, stepped down. From 1952 to 1965, he was the Sadr-e-Riyasat (president) of the state, and subsequently its governor till 1967. He then joined the Union cabinet as its youngest-ever member, holding the portfolios of tourism, civil aviation, and later, health. He won elections to the Lok Sabha twice and was a member of the Rajya Sabha for over two decades. He was ambassador of India to the United States (1989-90), chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University for three terms, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2005. Although a scholar of the Hindu faith, whose family trust maintains 175 temples in J&K, he was unambiguously secular and led the global interfaith movement for years.

With this vast experience and erudition, who could have been a better candidate to become President? But destiny plays its tricks. The UPA was then in power in coalition with the Left parties. CPI(M) leader, Prakash Karat, vetoed the possibility on the grounds that Singh was a royal. It was a ridiculous reason. Karan Singh had, as a teenager, rebelled against his father to join democratic politics under Jawaharlal Nehru, who was his mentor who called him by his pet name, Tiger. He fought and won the Lok Sabha elections. Few people know that even before Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purses in 1971, he had voluntarily surrendered his own and donated the money to a charitable trust. Far from coveting wealth, he was quite detached from it. The priceless jewels of his family, valued at an estimated thousand crores, lie sealed in a Srinagar vault. I once asked him why he doesn’t pursue his legal claim to them, and his answer was: “Let it go, Pavan. They are tainted by the blood of the conquests by my ancestors.”

Sitaram Yechury, Karat’s senior colleague, was my class fellow in St Stephens and remains a good friend. I requested him to put some sense into Karat. But Yechury flatly said that nobody can change Karat’s mind. Frankly, Sonia Gandhi too did not strongly press the case of Karan Singh, remaining non-committal and ambivalent.

Pratibha Patil became the next President, but Singh took it stoically, largely, I think, because of his spiritual anchorage. A few days after he lost out, my wife, and I were invited to lunch at his Srinagar home, Karan Mahal. He received us at the porch, and with a hearty laugh said: “Welcome. This is not the Rashtrapati Bhavan, but nothing to scoff at either!”

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences. The views expressed are personal

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