Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jagat Mehta: A Diplomat Ahead of his Times

Nikhil Kumar: A People’s Governor

By T.P.Sreenivasan

“It is lonely up there”, say many who occupy high positions in the government and in business, not because it is inevitable to be lonely, but since they consider it an attribute of accomplishment and glory. There are several noble exceptions and the super cop turned Governor Nikhil Kumar who has just resigned to return to active politics is one of them. In a short time, he became a Governor Extraordinary and merged with the Kerala scene and people with ease and dignity, a true “People’s Governor”. 

Strict adherents to protocol, who keep Governors in golden cages, were aghast when he stayed on to chat with people even after the National Anthem was played at official events. A Governor, who answered personal emails and engaged in meaningful conversations with visitors made his minders uncomfortable at times. They may have been nervous when he departed from prepared texts and spoke extempore on important subjects, in his own inimitable style. But Kerala will remember him for his easy style, his deep and sympathetic involvement in all aspects of the life in the state and his ability to communicate with ordinary people.

A quick learner, Nikhil Kumar grasped the intricacies of Kerala politics very quickly and without causing any controversy, encouraged a healing process among warring factions. His interventions were gentle, unbiased and principled, without seeking publicity or reward. To stay in Kerala and lead an active life even for a short while without being dragged into controversies is no easy task.

Nikhil Kumar’s classy, but simple style could not be missed. In an elegant white kurta and black waistcoat, he was the picture of simplicity, but his tall frame carried it with poise. The Raj Bhavan itself was transformed in no time. Simple and elegant white sofas replaced the heavy furniture and valuable object d’art, perhaps from his personal collection, appeared. New paintings, some of them gifted by a former Chief Secretary, adorned the walls. He pointed to a prominent empty space on the wall and asked me: “Don’t you think that this is the right place for a portrait of Sree Chithira Thirunal Maharaja?” I promised to get him one and he did not forget to follow up my offer till it was fulfilled.

The way Nikhil Kumar transformed the routine, short and strictly formal “At Home” on National Days into memorable affairs was truly amazing. Earlier, the drill was for the guests to arrive at 630 PM, the Governor to arrive at 7 PM and depart at 730 PM and the guests to depart afterwards after a cup of tea or coffee. The Governor and the Ministers were seated in a pavilion and those who considered themselves important crowded around them. The new Governor made it into a reception in the true sense, with himself and family circulating among guests and talking to them. The Ministers were also compelled to move around rather than sit in splendid isolation in a designated area. The décor and the food became better and the change in ambience made a huge difference in terms of participation and a feeling of equality.

Education was a passion for the Governor, as I discovered on my first courtesy call and he was full of ideas he shared with me and encouraged me to try them out. Instead of formal inaugurations, he preferred to talk to academic groups in an intimate atmosphere. When a number of Keralites made it to the top levels of the Civil Services, he organized a special event at the Raj Bhavan and engaged in a dialogue with them on the role and duties of civil servants. He volunteered to be at the concluding session of an International Conference on Education to participate in formulating the conclusions, though the visit of the Prime Minister on that very day upset those plans. I was astonished when he gave me his personal email ID to remain in touch, but I was even more surprised when I got detailed replies to my messages overnight. A Governor who replied to emails and spoke without a text on any subject was a marvel in Kerala.

One area in which he was particularly interested was the role of the Governor as Chancellor of the Universities in Kerala. Even though he did not spell out his ideas on the subject, he collected the views of the educationists in Kerala and participated in the national debate. While the Governor has the obligation to heed the advice of the Council of Ministers on matters relating to the state, he has no such obligation with regard to his role as the Chancellor. His decisions as the Chancellor reflected this conviction at every stage, much to the chagrin of the Government itself. Some of the issues that he had to tackle were actually created by pliable Chancellors, who saw their role as supportive of the Government. Nikhil Kumar made several interventions, some of them not known widely, to rectify the situation.

Governor Nikhil Kumar was a great believer in public debate on crucial issues. He did not turn down requests for participation in such debates. He also quietly encouraged debates on national and international issues and invited his friends in other states to join think tanks in Kerala to organize these debates. The foreign affairs think tank in Kerala, the Kerala International Centre, benefitted immensely from his advice. If he had continued as Governor, the intellectual life of Kerala would have would have been further enriched.

Kerala’s loss may well be the gain of national politics, which is not new ground for Nikhil Kumar. Returning to electoral politics in these uncertain times is indicative of his commitment to the democratic process and his willingness to contribute to it. He will carry with him the good wishes of the people of Kerala, whom he has served well as their Governor.

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