In his review of the second part of President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs, The Turbulent Years (1980-1996), released earlier this year, Ajay Singh of Firstpost had remarked upon the book’s “depiction of the perpetual insecurity in which top Indian politicians live. Mukherjee was thrown out of the party and rehabilitated in the Congress on the whims of one individual — Rajiv Gandhi. He suffered silently his ignominious exit from the party where he was seen to be a rising star during Indira Gandhi’s term. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Narasimha Rao once again kept him out of the cabinet but posted him as deputy chairman of Planning Commission. Rao promised him to ‘tell all’ one day about the reasons why he was kept out of the cabinet. Though Rao never revealed it, Mukherjee found his bearing after his re-induction as commerce minister, exactly eight years after he was removed as finance minister.”
Now, in a new avatar, another round of waiting may have begun for the 81-year-old Mukherjee. He has, just this morning, stepped into the fifth and final year of his first term as the President of India and the great debate has begun: will he or won’t he get a second term next year? Was the unheard of pomp and circumstance which marked the completion of his first four years in Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday, Narendra Modi choosing that very day to inaugurate phase-II of the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum Complex that was begun by this President, a royal send-off or was it the Prime Minister’s way of keeping the President’s hopes alive?
That there is a debate at all is remarkable. A lifelong Congressman who wholeheartedly subscribed to the slogan ‘Indira was India and India was Indira’, who scrupulously avoided the E-word in his aforementioned memoirs (the Emergency finds little place in his 595-page reminiscences) a Presidential candidate for a BJP government, and that too with a general election in the offing in 2019 – what an idea. Almost like the loud-mouthed Boris Johnson being made the diplomat-in-chief of Britain.
One set of insiders claim Pranab Mukherjee is under no such illusion and has already begun “sorting out his papers and gifts presented to him during his presidentship (sic).” Yet, his name keeps cropping up, amidst the galaxy of possible candidates doing the rounds, from dyed-in-the-wool Sanghis like LK Advani and Ram Madhav to glamorous outsiders like Ratan Tata and Amitabh Bachchan. But then, if anyone can come in as Sonia Gandhi’s man and carry on as Narendra Modi’s man it will be Pranab Mukherjee. He has talents few others do; he has memories that are still sharp in his mind.
Already he is said to have built up a close rapport with Narendra Modi. The Prime Minister reportedly treats him as his mentor, goes to him on many issues, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, and the President, with his vast experience in several key ministries, lends him a willing ear. On his part, Pranab Mukherjee sings paeans to the government, even going to the extent of condemning his past for failing to build up a suitable investment environment earlier. “I cannot pass on the buck to anybody. I will have to take the buck to myself because I was in administration too long,” he told a delegation of CEOs from the Silicon Valley in New Delhi earlier this year, and that “the amount of investment we made for hospitalising the sick industries over a longer period of time only made the investment inefficient.” He has even come out swinging for the Prime Minister’s pet project: the International Yoga day.
More critical of course has been his speedy signatures on government papers. Such as his prompt acquiescence to the imposition of President’s rule in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, his readiness to sign on the dotted line on many ordinances including that for the contentious Land Acquisition Bill (signing it three times in a row), his willingness to decline all mercy petitions coming his way, despatching far more convicts to the gallows than three of his predecessors put together. In sum, his refusal to put any spanner in Narendra Modi’s works.
True, there is not much a President can do to oppose a duly elected government but he does have one powerful weapon in his arsenal: sit on his hands and do nothing. For instance, he could have simply let the mercy petitions gather dust in Rashtrapati Bhavan instead of putting his imprimatur on them so quickly, thereby burnishing the Modi government’s muscular, unyielding self-mage and helping them to underline that they were not for bending, a death sentence is just that, a death sentence, and there would be no weak-kneed commuting of that.
At the same time, he has kept his own image intact, and helped the government too, by standing up in the midst of the “intolerance debate” and after the horrendous Dadri killings and speaking out about not allowing “the core values of our civilisation to be wasted,” a civilisation that has, for centuries, “celebrated diversity, promoted and advocated tolerance, enjoyed plurality.” In fact, the Prime Minister took the cue from the President and commented on the Dadri incident for the first time only after that and only to say I agree with the President or some such words.
But then, managing contradictions is a lifelong habit for Pranab Mukherjee. A career politician, he himself has admitted that he is no mass leader. Entering politics when the Left was rising in West Bengal, it was years before he could manage even a Rajya Sabha seat from his home state. But manage he did – in the late Nineties, when the Left Front was still in full spate here and the Congress did not even have the requisite first preference votes for his victory. Pranab Mukherjee sailed through.
It used to be said that CPI(M) supremo and then Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu had a soft spot for him. But even after the grand old man voluntarily stepped down from power, Pranab-da, as he is to even those young enough to be his grandchildren, consolidated his political base in West Bengal. In 2004 he fought, for the first time in his long stint in politics, the Lok Sabha elections and from here. He won by a massive margin and a second term in 2009. The Left was still in power here. He even whipped up a storm in the CPI(M) over the question of extending support to his bid to become the President of India, ending up with their votes in his kitty.
Similarly, the UPA’s success in surviving two full terms owed in no small measure to Pranab Mukherjee’s skills in winning over intractable coalition partners and getting tough Bills, such as, say, the Patents (Amendment) Bill, passed with some give and take. He is a practical man, his maxim was: “an imperfect legislation is better than no legislation”.
Narendra Modi could do worse than letting such a practical man stay on in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. His cooperation is not in question, while his acceptance to all parties can also be assumed. After all, the BJP is still not in the happy position in the electoral college that elects the President that it would like to be. Victories in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and other state elections early next year may give it the requisite numbers but that is a big if.
It was its inadequacy in the electoral college numbers game that had forced the Vajpayee government to think out of the box and come up with the surprise candidature of APJ Abdul Kalam. Pranab Mukherjee could be Narendra Modi’s Kalam; even the Congress and most others in the Opposition will not be able to object to him.
But if Pranab Mukherjee still has to leave the Rashtrapati Bhavan and its exquisite lawns and plush Raj-era interiors and roomy stables behind next July, it will only mean, once again, blood is thicker than water, the brotherhood of the RSS will trump all other considerations.