Modi is wrong: Pranab as PM would have been just as ruinous

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the BJP national council meeting on Sunday hit all the right notes that were calculated to rouse the hardcore BJP base into battle against the Congress. He tossed out a calorific dose of ‘red meat’ to diehard BJP cadres and supporters by targeting the Nehru-Gandhi family, without naming it, for its role over the decades in presiding over India’s developmental descent.

Yet, while firing away at the unmentionable ‘family’, which he sought to isolate at a political level, Modi appeared on occasion to overreach himself – and stretch the bounds of credulousness with his claims.

In particular, Modi threw a curve ball with his comments about former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was elevated to the post of President last year. “If only Pranab Mukherjee had been made Prime Minister,” said Modi, “things would not have been so bad (for India).”

He then went on to list Pranab-da’s many attributes that, in Modi’s estimation, would have made him a better Prime Minister than Manmohan Singh. “Pranab-da is political, is rooted and has a solution to every problem,” Modi said. “If he had been successful (as Prime Minister), what would have happened to the family?”

The course of history is, of course, littered with similar ‘what if’ scenarios, and political analysts with a certain bent of mind have built entire careers on such academic explorations.

PTI

Narendra Modi with President Pranab Mukherjee in during a Jan visit this year. PTI

Yet, it’s fair to say that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Modi’s postulation that Mukherjee would somehow have made for a better Prime Minister. Given Manmohan Singh’s record in office, the bar for being a better Prime Minister than him has been set very low. Even so, there is nothing to suggest that Pranab-da, the political warhorse, would have set the Yamuna on fire with his prowess as a Prime Minister.

Pranab Mukherjee started his political career during Indira Gandhi’s time, and inherited her socialist economic worldview (and carries it to this day), which is a greater anachronism today than it was in her time. It was that regressive worldview that infused many of his Ministerial stints in successive Congress governments, right up until his last Budget, presented in 2012.

It’s true of course that Pranab Mukherjee has been an intense political player and a “fixer” who leveraged his relationships with leaders in other political parties. But these were always done in the interests of advancing the Congress’ fortunes – and his own political career.

In all his 40-plus years in politics, Pranab Mukherjee has been tested on many occasions, and has frequently failed to put country before Congress. Loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family was so paramount that he even allowed himself to be used, as a small-time functionary, during the Emergency to advance the repressive powers of an authoritarian state. That dubious record came in for censorious mention in the Shah Commission reports on the Emergency excesses, even though he refused to cooperate with the Commission, on Indira Gandhi’s orders.

As Ram Jethmalani observed here in an open letter, Pranab Mukherjee “fully supported and participated” in the Emergency misdeeds without voicing even the faintest disapproval of it. “Throughout the Emergency, you acted like a loyal servant of the Gandhi family and what is worse, you were a complete collaborator with the main criminal of the Emergency: the late Sanjay Gandhi.” Yet, in 2010, Pranab Mukherjee wrote a book in which he blamed the Emergency excesses entirely on Sanjay Gandhi.

Right after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Pranab Mukherjee offered himself as a candidate for Prime Ministership, perhaps sensing that a political novice like Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t ready for the top job. That expression of ambition – always a bad thing in Indian politics –became a deadweight that kept Pranab Mukherjee from rising to the top.

That ignominy may have rankled with Pranab-da, but there is nothing in his political career, right down to his stint as Finance Minister in the UPA government, to indicate that he was anything other than a loyal servant of the Gandhi family. He lent himself as a political fixer whenever it faced a political crisis, and capitulated unquestioningly to the welfarist agenda of Sonia Gandhi and her kitchen Cabinet – the National Advisory Council. Particularly in a period of economic downturn, his profligacy on two fronts – with 'crony corporates' and on social spending – was ruinous for the economy. (More here.)

In any case, it’s clear that Mukherjee either didn’t know, given his ‘Micawberish’ outlook, that the economy was going downhill – or did nothing to stop it. Even though he confessed to sleepless nights about the subsidies that Sonia Gandhi’s NAC had piled on, loyalty to the Gandhi family effectively silenced him. There is nothing to suggest, therefore, that he would have been a better Prime Minister than Manmohan Singh, who too knew but looked the other way.

It’s possible, of course, that Pranab-da may someday write his memoirs blaming Sonia Gandhi for all that fiscal recklessness, but it’s far more likely that he will consider his sinecure in the Rashtrapati Bhavan sufficient compensation for all the political ignominy he suffered as the “eternal bridesmaid” of Indian politics.

Which is why it’s hard to take Modi seriously when he sings paeans to Pranab-da. This leads one to speculate about Modi’s intention in doing so. Media commentaries suggest that Modi invoked Pranab Mukherjee’s name – and in glowing terms – in order to play on the perception that Pranab-da has political differences with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Mukherjee cannot also have been pleased by Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s budget speech last week, in which he appeared to blame the poor state of the economy on the failed policies of the past, an obvious criticism of Pranab-da’s record as Finance Minister.

All is fair in politics, and Modi is arguably looking to drive a wedge between Pranab-da and the Congress. He perhaps calculates that pandering to Pranab-da now will yield rewards in 2014, particularly in the event of a hung Parliament, when the President will have to make a political judgement on which coalition is best placed to govern.

But the enterprise will likely prove fruitless. You can take a political leader out of the Congress but you can never take the Congress out of him. Pranab Mukherjee is an irremediable Congressman, who has frequently faltered when he was called upon to put country before Congress. There is nothing to indicate that he will break off the ties that bind him to the Nehru-Gandhi family, which have rewarded him immensely over his political career.