There was a time not long back, when State visits were not about theatrics, ‘masterstrokes’ or event management glitz. Instead, serious opportunities and differences were nuanced maturely by a potent combination of political statesmanship, civilisational dignity and professionals of diplomacy.

One such period of serendipitous ‘diversity’ of India’s finest minds at work was during the NDA government (Mar 1998 – May 2004) with the scholarly constitutionalist, K.R. Narayanan, as the Rashtrapati of India. That post truly meant that he was the conscience keeper of the Constitution. Hence, he had a duty to ‘speak’ when required, albeit, within ‘four walls of the Constitution’.

The executive offices of the land were led by the redoubtable Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a befitting leader and man-of-letters, himself. Both the Rashtrapati and the Pradhan Mantri may have been from fundamentally opposite sides of ideological persuasions, but both behaved above partisan posturing.

They realised that they were now above party politics, in those appointments. Neither wore their ‘Dalit’ or ‘Brahmin’ (from South or North) tags, but instead, invoked the wisdom and erudition acquired over decades of unmatched education and experience. They truly personified the much-bandied slogan ‘Unity-in-Diversity’, as a winning metaphor for the foundational ‘Idea of India’ to flourish.

The backdrop of second nuclear tests at Pokhran (May 1998) had led to considerable fractures in the India-United States relations. These were sought to be repaired by some deft backroom handling by Vajpayee’s ‘Hanuman’ i.e., Jaswant Singh. Away from the manufactured frenzy and megalomaniac claims of a partisan media, Jaswant Singh-StrobeTalbott (US Deputy Secretary of State), talks mended the relations, brick-by-brick.

The President-Prime Minister meetings in those days were always serious business, and not formalities. The President remained on top of the developments, and was asked to guide, given his own understanding and gravitas of world affairs.

Both these leaders harboured a mutual respect for the obviously well-read opinions of the other. Prime Minister Vajpayee went on to subtly seek the service of President K.R. Narayanan in engaging China, way beyond the ‘ceremonials’ that the post is sadly relegated to, now.

President K.R Narayanan, hailed as the ‘best diplomat of India’ had earned his diplomatic stripes slogging away at the China-desk as a young Ministry of External Affairs mandarin. When diplomatic relations with China had thawed after the 1962 debacle, Narayanan had assumed the sensitive and strategic post of Ambassador to China.

Later, was amongst the longest serving Ambassadors to the United States of America. That the brilliant diplomat was also a top-notch academician was borne from becoming the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University , subsequently.

He then acquired unmatched credentials as a politician/Constitutionalist after winning three straight Lok Sabha elections. He became a Union Minister, Vice President of India, and therefore the tag of ‘First Dalit’ President (which he was) was woefully inadequate, patronising and suggestive of ‘ceremonial’. He was so much more.

Never one to read from teleprompters or spin-doctored handouts, Narayanan would clock long and lonely hours in his office to chisel, craft, and even completely change drafts given to him. Because his intent, integrity and capability were aboveboard. The sagacious Vajpayee was a leader enough to know and respect a contrarian view, when it came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

One such moment of enlightened ‘correction’ came with the visit of the US President Bill Clinton in March 2000. Relations had relatively smoothened and Clinton’s visit signified that. However, the patent spirit of selfish unilateralism that besets American diplomacy, were obvious to those, who went beyond diplomatese, shenanigans and photo-ops.

China under Xi Jingping had not ‘arrived’ as a hegemonic state and Russia was a pale shadow of its past. This put the US in a position, to flex its own interests, to the discomfiture of others.

India was no bunny and Narayanan took the issue on himself as he went about preparing his banquet speech in his inimitable style. He was gracious as befitting the occasion, but always full of telling suggestions. Narayanan wanted to warn about unilateralism, inequitable capitalism and on sustainable development (when sustainability wasn’t even a fashionable word).

Narayanan had profoundly posited, “Globalisation does not mean the end of history and geography and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world. As an African statesman has observed, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by a village headman. In this age of democracy it will be headed by a panchayat.

“For us, the UN is the global panchayat, and that is why we want it to be democratised and sustained... In such a globalised world society, there would be no place for war, for hegemonistic controls or cut-throat competition”. The speech had so many layered subtexts.

Some in the MEA/PMO were supposedly ruffled, but nothing ever was conveyed to Rashtrapati Bhawan. The ‘Washington Post’ reported that the US was ‘chided’, and the ‘New York Times’ felt that President Narayanan’s tough talk was out of sync. However, it wasn’t, and the personal equation between Narayanan and Clinton remained extremely warm.

Clinton is believed to have held Narayanan in the highest professional and personal regard, as a wise scholar and undisputed statesman. Such was the cloth from which Presidents and Prime Ministers were cut then. Inherent decency, class and professional qualifications were the norm.

Those days, Rashtrapati Bhawan never shied away from complaining (formal letters not requiring TV crews) on all matters including concerns on constitutionality, inequity in society, emancipation and even on the 2002 communal riots (where too, both PM and President were on the same page).

Today, histrionics and bombast deflect what cannot be said. What can be quoted is dotingly lionised, and contextualised beyond its remit. The days of speaking contrarian views and expecting a reciprocal trust onto them, are over.

Most Constitutional offices and institutions only toe the line, or gently acquiesce out of the picture. KR Narayanan and Vajpayee were beyond partisan considerations. They agreed and disagreed with dignity.

Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is the Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views expressed are the writer’s own.