In Pranab Mukherjee, India has arguably the most “political” President in a long time. Unlike recent holders of India’s highest office, Mukherjee segues directly from a senior executive responsibility — most, recently as Finance Minister — to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Over a longer time frame, too, he has been immersed in the partisan political culture that in many ways characterises India.
For the Presidential office, which is perceived as rising above the rough-and-tumble of party politics, all this may seem a somewhat unwelcome qualification. And there are those who will argue, with good reason, that there are others eminently better suited than him to become President. Yet, there are ways in which President Pranab can harness his intensely political persona — in his pre-Presidential avatar — in the public good by acting as a bridge over India’s fractured polity.
God knows we need some of that today, with the government and the Opposition indulging in a non-stop spitfest that feeds the hyperpartisan cycle of bad behaviour on both sides. Ironically, Mukherjee himself was caught up in that vicious cycle not long ago when, in a rare moment of frustration, he snapped at BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and asked him to “shut up”. Sinha was giving him Mukherjee in the way Opposition members are wont to do when calling the government to account, but once that moment passed, however, Mukherjee was profusely apologetic, acknowledging that he had overstepped the limits of propriety.
For all the justifiable criticism that Mukherjee has received for his failings in his administrative capacity, he has consistently enjoyed political goodwill across the political spectrum. In fact, as the Presidential election process revealed, he was able to secure support for his candidacy across the political aisle, so to speak, with even some key constituents of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) breaking rank with the BJP to back him. Even the CPI(M), for all its criticism of the UPA government’s pursuit of “neoliberal” economic policies, spared Mukherjee from criticism, and came around to supporing him, breaking ranks with other Left parties on this.
At some level, it appeared to more than a few political analysts that Mukherjee’s candidacy perhaps enjoyed less grudging support from some Opposition parties – like the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (United) – than even the Congress. The perception that Mukherjee was not Congress president Sonia Gandhi‘s first choice as the UPA’s candidate for the presidency persists – and with good reason. In those estimations, Mukherjee, for all his well-chronicled loyalty to the First Family of Dynastic politics in India, has on occasions acted with a fiercely independent streak that is seen to unnerve leaders close to Sonia Gandhi. The fact that he is no political pushover, and enjoys enormous goodwill may have been troubling to those who expect not just loyalty, but extraordinary fealty.
And even in the Presidential voting process, Mukherjee was able to win a handful of “cross votes” from ‘rebel’ BJP MLAs in the Karnataka Assembly. That may have come about more because of the cussedness of the rebel BJP leaders, who wanted to embarrass the party leadership, but it is a demonstration of Mukherjee’s ability to harvest support in the most unlikely places and for the most unlikely reasons.
It is this goodwill that ‘President Pranab’ must harness after he takes office on Wednesday.
Although he was himself an active constituent of the UPA government that was mired in policy paralysis after the string of corruption scandals under its watch, Mukherjee can – and must – use his elevated office to gently goad the government into taking the difficult policy decisions that he himself acknowledged, when he was Finance Minister, could no longer be postponed. In equal measure, he can – and must – leverage his goodwill with the Opposition parties to counsel them on the merits of rising above hyperpartisan politics in the larger national interest. His office gives him the stature that he may have lacked when, despite the heavyweight nature of his administrative and political responsibilities, he was himself caught up in that partisan trap.
Particularly after Pratibha Patil’s colourless tenure as President, which opened the floodgates to merciless criticism that actually diminished the standing of that office, Pranab Mukherjee represents a vastly different template for the “working president”. There are, of course, constitutional limits, and the protocols that define the ‘balance of power’, that will ensure that he doesn’t overreach into the political domain. And as we’d observed, his capacity to put his country before his (erstwhile) party will be on stern test. But it would be equally a shame for him to subsume his political persona entirely, particularly when there is so much of it that he can harness in the public good.