PRESIDENTIAL YEARS .. As Pranab opens up, secrets of power corridors in Delhi spill out –Part I


KS Shankar

By KS Shankar/IHN-NN

NEW DELHI: Former President Pranab Mukherjee has spilled beans in relation to several goings-on in the epi-center of power in the national capital, in a just-released memoir. Pranab passed away on August 31, 2020, following a fall in his bathroom.

The controversial Demonetisation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at night on November 8, 2016 put the nation through huge trouble, though the move was well-intentioned and helpful to the nation in the long-run. Pranab Mukherjee, a long-time finance minister himself, refers to the decision and says he knew about it only after the announcement was made. Modi had kept it a secret also to avoid the big decision getting leaked out and spoiling the very intent.

Pranab states in the fourth and concluding chapter of his memoir that Narendra Modi acted like a dictator in his first term from 2014 to mid-2020. The memoirs, titled the Presidential Years 2012-2017, was completed by Mukherjee shortly before his death. The book  published by Rupa Publications was released on January 5.

The Congress lost “political focus”, Sonia Gandhi was “unable to handle the affairs of the party, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “prolonged absence from Parliament” eroded his contact with other parliamentarians, Pranab said. The veteran leader, who worked for the Congress from the late 1960s, said 
the Congress would not have faced a “drubbing” in 2014 if he was still in active politics.

In a wide ranging autobiography, Mukherjee has documented his years as President, weaving in the personal and the political.

THE 2014 MANDATE: Mukherjee writes that he had expected of the BJP to become the single largest party in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, winning possibly 195-200 seats. While most
political interlocutors had given him a similar sense, it was only Piyush Goyal, then BJP treasurer– who had said the party would get between 265 and 280 seats. When tie final numbers came in, the BJP won the polls by a comfortable majority on its own in Parliament.

Mukherjee writes: “I was greatly relieved over the decisive mandate but also disappointed at my old party’s performance. It was difficult to believe that the Congress had managed to win just 44 seats… I feel the party failed to recognise the end of its charismatic leadership.”

The veteran leader who was in the forefront of the party ever since the time of Indira Gandhi  was also frank about the reasons for the dismal showing of the
Congress in the 2014 general elections. He stated candidly: “Some members of the Congress have theorized that had I become the PM in 2004, the party might have averted the 2014 Lok Sabha drubbing.”

“Though I don’t subscribe to this view, I do believe that the party’s leadership lost political focus after my elevation as President. While Sonia Gandhi was unable to handle the affairs of the party, Dr Singh’s prolonged absence from the House put an end to any personal contact with other MPs.”

TWO PMS: In his candid assessment of the two Prime Ministers he had worked with as President  —Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — Mukherjee writes: Manmohan Singh had “determination.. a strong sense of propriety … steely will- power.”  Mukherjee adds:  “I believe that the moral authority to govern vests with the PM. The overall state of the nation is reflective of the functioning of the PM and his administration.”

“While Dr Singh was preoccupied with saving the coalition, which took a toll on governance, Modi seemed to have employed a rather autocratic style of governance during his ­first term, as seen by the bitter relationship among the government, the legislature and the judiciary. Only time will tell if there is a better understanding on such matters in the second term of this government.”

The late president said he had a clear understanding of his role as President and had resolved not to cross the limits imposed on him, though on one occasion, he asked for an explanation from Singh about an ordinance that his government was bringing. “Sensing my disquiet, the PM spoke to his minister, who then informed me that the government has decided to withdraw the ordinance”.

Mukherjee said his approach to maintaining cordial ties came from his belief in the parliamentary form of government, that Modi received a decisive mandate, and both knew how to manage those differences, “without bringing them out in the public.”

DEMONETISATION: On Modi not discussing about demonetisation with him before announcing it, Mukherjee wrote: “I am of the firm opinion that demonetization could not have been done with prior consultation because the suddenness and surprise, absolutely necessary for such announcements,
would have been lost after such a process.Therefore, I was not surprised that he did not discuss the issue with me prior to making the public announcement. It also fitted in with his style of making dramatic announcements,” Mukherjee said.

However, he added that, after delivering his address to the nation, Modi visited him at Rashtrapati Bhavan and explained to him the rationale behind the decision. “He desired an explicit support from me as a former finance minister of the country. I pointed out to him that while it was a bold step, it may lead to a temporary slowdown of the economy. We would have to be extra careful to alleviate the sufferings of the poor in the medium to long term,” Mukherjee said.

The late president states that four years after demonetisation, one thing could be stated — the multiple objectives of the decision have not been met. He then recounts how this was not new — and Mukherjee had sent a note on demonetisation in the early 1970s to the Prime Minister’s Office. Indira Gandhi then rejected the suggestion, “pointing out that a large part of the economy was not yet fully monetised and a substantial part of it was in the informal sector.”

FOREIGN POLICY: Mukherjee, who held the external affairs portfolio for a period at the Centre, writes India needs to tackle Pakistan through “deft handling” rather than “romanticising its political approach” and the country gained little by “the over-talking on the surgical strikes of 2016.” He adds: “India must pursue its Pakistan-related policies with utmost care and deft handling, and not through romanticising its political approach. Surgical strikes conducted by Indian forces have been normal military operations in response to Pakistan’s continued aggression. But there is really no need to over-publicise them — something that has been done ever since the Indian military conducted two strikes inside Pakistani territory since 2016. “We gained nothing by over-talking on these operations.”

On China, Mukherjee said that on his visit to the communist country in 2016, at a formal banquet, he and President Xi Jinping had an hour-long discussion — for most part without an interpreter though one was present — with Xi asking questions about functioning of the Indian government, the constitutional framework and implementation of policies. The only time he sought an interpreter was when Mukherjee discussed the McMahon Line. “After the discussion, (the then foreign secretary) S Jaishankar rushed to me and asked if anything important had been discussed. I told him the only important thing was that one
had to revisit the story of India’s Constitution and its functioning since the 50s.”

On foreign relations, Mukherjee felt that Modi’s stopover in Lahore was “unnecessary and uncalled for”, given the conditions that prevailed in India-Pakistan relations. “It was evident that one could expect the unexpected from Modi, because he had come with no ideological foreign policy baggage. He was to continue with these surprises. He made a sudden and unscheduled stop at Lahore in December 2015 to greet his then Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the latter’s birthday; and he initiated an annual informal summit with the Chinese president  — one was held at Wuhan in China in 2018 and the other, more recently, at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu in 2019.”

Mukherjee also brings the reader closer to the inner workings of the Rashtrapati Bhavan as he reveals a minor diplomatic issue that arose during the visit of US President Barack Obama in 2015 when the US Secret Service insisted that Obama travels in a specially armoured vehicle that had been brought from the US, and not in the car designated for the use by the Indian head of state. “They wanted me to travel in the same armoured car along with Obama. I politely but ­firmly refused to do so, and requested the MEA to inform the US authorities that when the US President travels with the Indian President in India, he would have to trust our security arrangements. It cannot be the other way around,” Mukherjee writes.

Mukherjee recalls that every PM had a style of functioning. Lal Bahadur Shastri took positions that were very different from that of Nehru, despite being from the same party. Nehru, Mukherjee said, dealt with Nepal very diplomatically and “rejected” an offer to be made an Indian province. “After the Rana rule was replaced by the monarchy in Nepal, he wished for democracy to take roots. Interestingly, Nepal’s King, Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah, had suggested to Nehru that Nepal be made a province of India. Nehru rejected the offer on the ground that Nepal was an independent nation and must remain so, Mukherjee recollects, while also noting that Indira Gandhi would have reacted differently.

MERCY PETITIONS: Mukherjee, who acquired a reputation for rejecting mercy petitions of convicts sentenced to death, also refers to the pain and anguish while taking these decisions. “The president is not the punishing authority…the president is the last resort”. He would take more than a week to read the case history and court judgments, but not take more than three weeks to dispose of a file.

In an oblique criticism of his predecessors, Mukherjee noted that APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil left a large number of cases pending, with the former hardly disposing of any petition and the latter granting clemency to 34 convicts and rejecting just three mercy petitions. “I rejected 30 mercy pleas involving nearly 40 convicts…I saw no point in keeping such files pending.”

PRANAB AS PREZ: According to Mukherjee, when he looked back on his years as President, he derived satisfaction not only from the fact that he followed the
rule book in letter and spirit in dealing with governments and issues of the day, but also because he never veered from the constitutional parameters that have been laid down for an Indian head of state. He wrote he had very cordial relations with Prime Minister Modi during his tenure. “However, I did not hesitate to give my advice on matters of policy during our meetings. There were several occasions when he echoed concerns that I had voiced. I also believe that he has managed to grasp the nuances of foreign policy quickly,” the book said.

In the summer of 2012, when Mukherjee became the 13th President of India after having spent several decades in politics, there was speculation about how he would approach his new, bipartisan role after having been associated with a political party for so many years of his life. By the time he had served his term, Mukherjee had won the respect and admiration of the people from across the political spectrum, including those who were his rivals when he was a political figure.

PRANAB’S LIFE: The Presidential Years  is the culmination of a fascinating journey that brought Mukherjee from the flicker of a lamp in a remote village in Bengal to the chandeliers of Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is a deeply personal account of the manner in which he reshaped the functioning of Rashtrapati Bhavan and responded to tumultuous events as the country’s fi­rst citizen, leaving behind a legacy that will be hard to match. Pranab da, as he is affectionately called, recollects the challenges he faced in his years as President – the difficult decisions he had to make and the tightrope walk he had to undertake to ensure that both constitutional propriety and his opinion were taken into consideration.

The first three books are titled ‘The Dramatic Decade’ that focuses on one of the most fascinating periods in Independent India’s history – the 1970s, when Mukherjee cut his teeth and plunged headlong into
national politics; ‘The Turbulent Years’, which opens in the 1980s – Sanjay Gandhi is dead under unexpected, tragic circumstances; not many
years later, Indira Gandhi is assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi, ‘the reluctant politician’, abruptly becomes India’s Prime Minister; and ‘The Coalition Years’, which begins its journey in 1996 and explores
the highs and lows that characterised 16 years of one of the most tumultuous periods in the nation’s political history. (PART II to follow.)


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