Books

Pranab’s Presidential years

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on January 10, 2021

A matter-of-fact, yet reflective, memoir of a veteran politician

This is the fourth and perhaps concluding volume of the late Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs. It is about his years as President of India. Thankfully this is a reflective book rather than being one of those dull recitations of the chronology of events.

The first three volumes dealt with the period when he was a key figure in the politics and governance of India. This volume is about when he ceased to have a political role but remained central, as all Indian Presidents must, to governance, not least because he straddled two eras during his tenure, the Sonia Gandhi era and the Narendra Modi era.

Like the other three volumes, this one also doesn’t make for sensational reading. His style and content are as matter-of-fact as can be. Nevertheless, for those who want some knowledge of, and insights into, the events in which he participated — directly or indirectly — these volumes constitute compulsory reading.

Other participants in those events may have different versions but Mukherjees’s versions are likely to remain the most authentic. He had that authoritative aura acquired over half a century from the mid-1960s onwards. Politicians from all parties turned to him for advice and guidance which he dispensed freely.

Plain-speaking President

When Mukherjee met Narendra Modi in May 2014 after the latter had led the BJP to a simple majority in the Lok Sabha — the first since 1984 — Modi asked for a week before he was sworn in as Prime Minister. It seems he needed that time to settle the issue of his successor in Gujarat!

Overall, Mukherjee seems to have been very approving of Modi. He says he even gave Modi advice when the latter did not ask for it — and that “there were several occasions when he (Modi) echoed the concerns I had voiced.” He is less approving of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh who, in his view, made a mess of both governance and politics after 2010. Mukherjee is very clear that had it been left to him the Congress would not have been reduced to just 44 seats in 2014.

“I firmly believe that my presence in active politics would have ensured that the Congress wouldn’t have faced the drubbing it received in the 2014 general elections.” Sonia Gandhi had kicked him upstairs in 2012 to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

He also reveals that many Congress politicians told him that had he been made Prime Minister in 2004 the Congress would have been hugely better off. He says “though I don’t subscribe to this view I do believe that the party’s leadership lost political focus after my elevation as President.”

He blames Sonia Gandhi for all the debacles. He mentions Rahul Gandhi only twice. The resentment of the Gandhi family and its courtiers is obvious. He says “the party failed to recognise the end of its charismatic leadership.” He also says he had to often send Opposition leaders — Sonia and Rahul included — packing after they tried to use him for political purposes. He had no time for such tactics.

The reflective tone of the book is present throughout the book. He is very clear in his mind about certain things that have attracted a lot of controversy.

For example, Article 356 of the Constitution which allows the Central government to dismiss State governments. Misuse aside, he says the Article is necessary. He is equally clear about the judiciary’s usurpation of the power to appoint judges. This is not a good thing he says because it excludes those who have been elected, namely, Parliament and its subset, the government. “I have serious doubts over the present arrangement,” he says, “and the judiciary ought to relook at the issue.”

He is equally clear in the matter of presidential discretion also. It comprises giving advice informally if the President feels that a particular action is not a good one but not acting to subvert it because the Constitution doesn’t allow it except in very exceptional circumstances as when President Zail Singh appointed Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1984 after Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. That said, Mukherjee did use his discretion to advise and persuade as when the questionable actions of the governor of Arunchal Pradesh created a controversy.

Mukherjee has included a section at the end called ‘Copybook relationships’. He talks about himself and Manmohan Singh who had worked together in government from 1971 when the latter joined the government.

Until 2004, Mukherjee was the senior man. Then Dr Singh became the Prime Minister. In 2012 Mukherjee became the President, senior once again.

They had many tense moments between them but Mukherjee doesn’t mention them. One of these was when Mukherjee was Finance Minister in 1983 and Dr Singh Governor of the RBI. Mukherjee wanted a banking licence to be given to a bank owned by a Pakistani. That bank had been trying since 1977.

Dr Singh refused, as had his predecessor, IG Patel. Mukherjee got upset and said he would take away the RBI’s licensing powers. Dr Singh then said he would resign if Mukherjee did that. But Indira Gandhi persuaded Dr Singh to stay on. Mukherjee could have thrown some light on this incident. He doesn’t, which is a pity.

Published on January 10, 2021

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