Is Pranab Mukherjee, the activist president that we have been waiting for?
A president who will speak his mind, be the conscience-keeper of the majority of the country and the devil’s advocate that we will need every now and then.
If his first ever speech after assuming office is anything to go by, he has spoken his mind and has indicated that he is not going to spend time speaking to school children on how to dream and go to the moon or take weekend jumbo-junkets to far-away lands.
The man who has handled almost all important portfolios that one can think of as a minister over the last four decades, has indicated two crucial things right at the beginning: that he will be active as a President and that he wants the desperate conditions of poor of the country to be acknowledged.
Greatly encouraging.Mukherjee said two critical things among other routine issues such as peace and terrorism. One, that he will “strive to defend our Constitution not just in word but also in spirit.” Meaning, he will not be a rubber stamp.
And two, “For our development to be real, the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India,” he said. Meaning, the poor have been let down.
As the Finance Minister of India, torn between growth and inflation, he would have spoken about FDI in retail but as the President of the country he talks about poverty. And most importantly, he outrightly rejects the trickle-down theory of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his band of economists and planners.
When he says that “trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor,” he is in fact debunking the very foundation of the UPA’s neo-liberal policy and its belief that the market and the trickle-down will indeed take care of a lot of the poor at the bottom of the pyramid.
A line that Manmohan Singh never went back on.
The first salvo from Mukherjee, the President, against Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and his government. “We must lift those at the bottom so that poverty is erased from the dictionary of modern India.”
“There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger,” he says while stressing that the country’s forefathers had “offered us a tryst with destiny: to eliminate the curse of poverty, and create such opportunities for the young that they can take our India forward by quantum leaps.”
Compare Mukherjee with the two recent past-presidents, who at best, had been staid and lackluster. One of them picked on a safe constituency – children and science – and indulged largely in inspirational speeches or conversations. He spoke about rockets, which even a grass-eating North Korea can make in its backyard, and the outdated dream of lunar voyages.
The other remained mostly insignificant until her travel bills and post-retirement home plans made it to the media. Of course, they couldn’t have done any better than what they had been cut out for.
In comparison, Mukherjee, even at 77 is a superstar politician who had done, what he had been doing recently, several times over in the past.
For example, he had first served his last office (the finance ministry) three decades ago and had handled portfolios as diverse as external affairs, shipping, industrial development, commerce and defence. He served on the board of governors of IMF and the multilateral banks in his forties and was the deputy chairman of the planning commission in his fifties.
Despite his break from the Congress during Rajiv Gandhi’s period, he was still the most reliable troubleshooter and interlocutor for the Congress.
How can such a man suddenly change his character? Can a change of office take the very DNA of the politician and administrator out of him? Quite unlikely.
That he chose to speak on inequality and poverty right at the beginning of his inaugural speech cannot be coincidental. If India needs an influential voice on anything urgent, it is on poverty that cripples the lives of 69% of the country’s population (those who earn less than US$ 2 per day). Out of this, half are absolutely destitute. India is home to almost every bad poverty indicator in the world. Take a look at the recent annual health survey from nine states, one would hang one’s head in shame.
It’s not without reason, poverty is the world’s first and most important Millennium Development Goal (MDG), that too a complex one to achieve and measure. Every other MDG; including education, health, maternal and child health is linked to poverty and will be unachieved if poverty is not addressed.
The Planning Commission, the Prime Minister and most of the new generation politicians in India are keen to prove to the world that India is not as poor as it is projected to be. Victims of the hype and inclusion in clubs such as BRICS and G20, our top brass in both bureaucracy and the government have been trying their best to hide our poverty.
Creating ridiculously low thresholds like the poverty limit of Rs. 29 per person per day; withdrawal from critical sectors either through outright sell-outs or public-private partnerships, and never-ending prophecies on trickle-down haven’t taken the country anywhere.
There is certainly a purpose, by chance or design, for an otherwise active politician-administrator, that too with impeccable credentials, to assume an office that otherwise can be titular. It couldn’t have been just the Presidential perks or the frustration of hitting the glass ceiling over and over again that took Mukherjee to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
When the entire class of politicians let us down with mega-loots and mostly anti-people policies, individuals heading some of our institutions came to our rescue whether it is the the Supreme Court or the CAG.
Can Mukherjee and the Presidential office be the next in line?