4 December 1910: R. Venkatraman, eighth President of India was born

Ramaswamy Venkataraman, the eight President of India, was born on December 4, 1910, in Rajamadam village in present-day Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu.

He secured a degree in economics from Loyola College, Madras, and later studied law. He practised law and got involved with the Indian National Congress and the freedom movement. He participated in the Quit India Movement in the 1940s for which the government acted against him.

After World War II ended, he was sent to some South-east Asian nations along with other lawyers to defend Indians who had been accused of supporting the Japanese occupation. After India became independent, Venkataraman worked at the Madras Provincial Bar Federation as secretary. He was also a member of the constituent assembly responsible for drafting India’s Constitution. He later became an MP. He was also secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party for a while.

He was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1957 but resigned his seat and instead became a minister at the Madras state government, and leader of the upper house in the state. His portfolios as minister included industries, labour, cooperation, power and transport. Between 1967 and 1971, he was member of the Union Planning Commission where he covered industry, power, transport, labour, communications and railways. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977 from Madras (South). During this stint in Parliament he was also chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

He held several other posts in his long career including member of the Union Cabinet’s political and economic affairs committees. He was a delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations several times. Between 1955 and 1979 he was member of the United Nations Administrative Tribunal.  

After being re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980, Venkataraman became the Union finance minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet. He was later made defence minister. In August 1984, he was elected as Vice-President of India. He assumed the office of President on July 25, 1987. His term, which lasted till July 25, 1992, was a turbulent time for Indian politics as it marked the beginning of the coalition era. “A copybook president, R Venkataraman skilfully guided the country through a testing period of coalition politics in its nascent days that saw three prime ministers in two years,” a news report said after his death in 2009. “Known for dignity and fair play, Ramaswamy Venkataraman, popularly known as RV, will go down in history as the President who had the distinction of working with four prime ministers, appointing three of them — V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao — during his five-year term.”

Despite being labelled a ‘copybook president’, Venkataraman had to take complex decisions at times because of the new nature of politics the country was witnessing. As T. Ramakrishnan wrote in The Hindu in July 2012: “After Chandra Shekhar quit as Prime Minister in March 1991 a few days after his Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha had presented the interim budget, RV…took the initiative of having budgetary and financial provisions passed by Parliament, avoiding an unpleasant situation of having to promulgate an ordinance to cover expenditure. Unusually, the President wrote to Lok Sabha Speaker…and the Prime Minister, advising them how this could be done. That was not the only occasion that he departed from the conventional approach that Presidents would have adopted under similar circumstances.”

Later, when President K.R. Narayanan decided to return a Cabinet recommendation on imposing central rule in Uttar Pradesh, Venkataraman came out in support of Narayanan. “…The union government’s decision to impose President’s rule in UP is flawed. That some members of the House indulged in violence and unruly behaviour does not warrant the conclusion that the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The House has the power to take action including suspension against those people who are indulging in violence,” he told the web portal rediff.com in an interview. “[T]he House has passed the vote of confidence and the decision of the House cannot be thwarted by the unruly conduct of a few people. The President’s returning the proclamation is both constitutionally correct and praiseworthy.”

Venkataraman received several honours including the Tamra Patra for participation in the freedom movement; the Soviet Land Prize for his travelogue on Congress leader K. Kamaraj’s visit to Socialist countries; and a Souvenir from the United Nations for his service as president of the UN administrative tribunal.  

Venkataraman died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 98, in New Delhi after suffering from multiple organ failure.  In a tribute to Venkataraman during his birth centenary celebrations, Vice President Hamid Ansari’s said: “Ramaswami Venkataraman contributed to the strengthening of the institutions of our republic. He was a practitioner of virtue in the classical sense, a stickler for propriety and decency, for doing what was right in accordance with his conscience and convictions. He believed that incumbency of public office necessitated decision making, and that doing right was more important than catering to personal preferences or quest for popularity.”

Also on this day:

1919 — I.K. Gujral, 12th Prime Minister of India, was born  

1963 — Jaaved Jaaferi, Indian actor and TV artiste, was born

1976 — Milind Deora, Congress leader and union minister, was born

1977 — Ajit Agarkar, Indian cricketer, was born

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