Indian President Pranab Mukherjee has been making speeches verging on politics from Day One. He has been commenting on the problems confronting the nation as if he is presiding over the affairs of the country. His Republic Day broadcast beats them all and has naturally evoked some angry comments. Several political parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI) have characterised the speech as political.
What President Mukherjee says is generally correct. For example, his remarks that populist anarchy is no substitute for governance or that there is a rising trend of hypocrisy in public life are correct. But he forgets that he is only a constitutional head and has to observe the decorum which the elected parliament and state legislatures expect from a person who occupies that position.
No doubt, he finds politics a familiar turf, but he left it when he was elected president. His grievance with Congress president Sonia Gandhi may be genuine. But that is between her and him. The nation is not concerned with what goes on in a political party.
Mukherjee would have been a natural successor after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped down. Precisely, this is the reason why a person who had wide contacts was kicked upstairs. Sonia’s determination to make her son Rahul the prime minister came in the way of Mukherjee’s political ambitions. It was up to Mukherjee not to accept the post of president. But when he announced that he would not contest in the 2014 elections, it became clear that he was exasperated, waiting in the wings. Sonia readily accepted the position because he had himself cleared the deck for Rahul. Mukherjee had taken it for granted that the key role he had played as a fire fighter during the troubled times of the party and for having served the dynasty relentlessly would not be ignored.
Unfortunately, Mukherjee has not adjusted himself to the institution of president. He should refrain from making such remarks, which he could do so as a politician. I have not liked the dharna (sit-in) by Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, on the demand of transferring four police officials who had reportedly insulted his Law Minister Somnath Bharti. Kejriwal has set a bad precedent by letting his law minister off the hook. He should have left it to the state chief secretary to deal with the “defiance” by the police officials. His defence is that he did not violate the constitution. It is a strange logic when he threw to the wind the very letter and the spirit of the constitution that has given all the powers to the executive of which he is only a figurehead. The Delhi chief minister’s defence that his dharna was not unconstitutional does not wash. He does not realise that the middle class, his forte, wants an orderly administration and feels let down over the tactics like dharna by the state chief minister. But why should President Mukherjee comment on political matters is really beyond me.
Mukherjee’s comment that the “government is not a charity shop” is criticism of the promises that the government makes to draw electoral support. All political parties do so. Mukherjee was in the cabinet of prime minister Indira Gandhi when she raised the slogan Garibi Hatao (let’s do away with poverty). The Manmohan Singh government has doled out favours to ally DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) to sustain its support. It is an open secret how the Central Bureau of Investigation’s case against Mulayam Singh Yadav was withdrawn to get his party’s support. Mukherjee was part of the government when there was a quid pro quo to save the Manmohan government from falling. If Mukherjee felt so strongly, as his criticism indicates, why did he not speak out at that time? His opposition would have meted because he was a senior leader.
For example, his recovery of tax retrospectively dried up foreign investment. As finance minister, he should have anticipated the adverse effect his decision would have on investment. Even today, when reasons for stagnation are adumbrated, Mukherjee’s name is mentioned repeatedly. He lives in the luxury of Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace) while the nation is paying the price for his follies.
Mukherjee was a minister when Indira had stopped sending any papers to the then president Giani Zail Singh, who differed with her on Punjab. What Indira did was a violation of the constitution. I wish Mukherjee had raised his voice then. The office of the president is an institution which should not be disfigured. Yet, political leaders do that. That Mukherjee should also be doing so is a sad commentary on his sagacity and those like him.
Yet another example is that Mukherjee’s silence when Indira imposed the emergency in 1975. She delivered a severe blow to the institutions which her father and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had fostered. Mukherjee was then a close collaborator of Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi, an extra constitutional authority. The worst aspect of the emergency was that morality was banished from politics. There was fear that made the then president, Fakruddin Ali Ahmad, to sign the proclamation even before the cabinet gave its approval. My experience is that a prime minister pays scant attention to a president. The constitution framers, who preferred parliamentary democracy to a presidential form of government, laid down what the president can do. But this has been nullified over the years because the Congress party takes the president’s wishes for granted. By making political speeches, the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan only aggravates the problem.
There is a very thin line dividing right and wrong, moral and immoral. Institutions ought to protect that line. It is easy to say from the pulpit that such and such thing is dangerous to the country. However correct Mukherjee’s observations may be, he should introspect whether what he did as a cabinet minister was correct, not only legally but also morally. The ball is in his court.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.