“A working president...working within the four corners of the Constitution,” was how KR Narayanan once described himself. Narayanan, who served as the 10th president of India from 1997-2002, was also not particularly enthused at being labelled the “first Dalit president”.

As he himself once said, “It used to disturb me because the Dalit aspect was not predominant in the mind of people who supported me during the process of the elections.” His discomfort was not rooted in denialism as much as dissuading citizens from getting carried away by symbolism alone.

The highest office of the land demanded an incumbent who embodied constitutional spirituality, morality, and above all, commitment. In hindsight, Narayanan was perhaps one of India’s greatest constitutionalists. Knowing his personal belief in the Constitution, he would not mind this tag.

If one were to understand Narayanan’s journey to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, it is clear that it would have been difficult for him to be anything but a “constitutionalist” and a firm believer in the “Idea of India”. His inaugural address to Parliament in July 1997 captured it eloquently:

“That the nation has found a consensus for its highest office in someone who has sprung from the grass-roots of our society and grown up in the dust and heat of this sacred land is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the centre stage of our social and political life.”

Only the Indian Constitution, was scripted and institutionalised into the collective conscience of this diverse land by the brilliant BR Ambedkar could have carved out a path for Narayanan’s journey from Uzhavoor village in Kerala’s Kottayam district to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Constitution, beyond affording rights, privileges and dignity as equal citizens, also ensured through Article 14 that, “the state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”.

These were significant words of empowerment to one, who like Narayanan, was born in the historically oppressed Paravan caste.

Narayanan’s constitutionality was ironed by distinction in all his callings – academic, professional, and even the highest constitutional/political offices held before becoming the “conscience keeper of the Constitution”.

He worked as a journalist between 1944 to 1945 after which he went on a Tata scholarship to the London School of Economics, where he studied under economist and theorist Harold Laski. Laski gave Narayanan a letter of introduction to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and he joined the foreign service upon his return.

Hailed by Nehru as the “best diplomat of India”, Narayanan went on to serve as the country’s ambassador to the United States, China, Turkey, Thailand and other countries.

The scholar in Narayanan saw him teach at the Delhi School of Economics from 1954-’55. After retiring from the foreign services in 1978, he was the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University from 1979-’80.

Narayanan earned his political stripes by winning three Lok Sabha elections in a row – 1984, 1989 and 1991 – from Ottapalam in Kerala, despite the state being a Left bastion. He also held ministerial portfolios for external affairs, planning and science and technology.

From October 1992 to July 1997, he served as the Vice President of India, and then from 1997 to 2002 as president.

During his presidency, Narayanan avowedly kept away from all places of religious importance and “godmen” or “godwomen” of all hues and persuasions. He knew well how religiosity could be misused to divide and enflame the tinderbox that is India, and therefore how critical it was for all elements that constitute the state to maintain a deliberate distance.

The 42nd Amendment of the Constitution asserted that India is a “secular democratic republic”, making clear that it did not prioritise or diminish any one religion for the country and its people – not even if they were to be in the majority.

During Narayanan’s presidency, Indian politics witnessed majoritarian assertion, with the 2002 Gujarat riots among its most horrifyingly visible signs. It was a virulent strain of partisanship, alien in its intensity to even the more moderate moorings of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led dispensation of the same ideology.

Narayanan had repeatedly championed the Constitution as an instinctive counter-reflex, perhaps knowing what the future held. Unlike many before or after him, he held his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law” above partisanship, pettiness or the preferences of majority.

In 2000, when the government handed him a pre-scripted address to Parliament, suggesting that the Constitution will be reviewed, he knew that he was duty bound to read it as given – unlike many modern-day constitutional appointees in gubernatorial offices who pick and choose matter, beholden to partisan loyalties.

During the country’s golden jubilee celebration of Independence, Narayanan posed a question to the citizens: “Today when there is so much talk about revising the Constitution or even writing a new Constitution, we have to consider whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether it is we who have failed the Constitution.”

The equally prescient Vajpayee saw the writing on the wall and deferred to Narayanan’s defense of the Constitution. It had taken a moral spine, honest commitment to an oath and the far-sighted vision to defend the constitution. Only, the likes of a KR Narayanan had the sagacity and inert honour to do so, and a matching sense of dignity, magnanimity, and humility for the likes of a Vajpayee, to accept the same.

The Constitution was saved in 2000, but today it is being increasingly questioned again – questioned not just by Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, but also by Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar. Such is the decline in the narrative and discourse of governance. The “holy book”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Constitution, is being recklessly questioned by its ostensible defenders.

As only Narayanan could contexualise the extent of healthy dynamism and evolution with respect to the Constitution:

“Whatever we may do, and we have a right to bring about necessary changes in the political and economic system, we should ensure that the basic philosophy behind the Constitution and fundamental socio-economic soul of the Constitution remain sacrosanct. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater and like the tragic character Othello in Shakespeare have to lament later, ‘Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away – richer than all his tribe’.”

Narayanan was not a status quoist stuck in time, but knew that the wisdom of the Constitution needed to be defended from usurpers and pretenders – the highest form of patriotism. Now is not the era of patriots but of jingoistic hyper-nationalists who do not know the difference between the two. Narayanan was the finest example of a patriot and a constitutionalist.

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.