June 2012. Pranab Mukherjee was the most unlikely candidate for President. Although he’d emerged unscathed from a turbulent tenure as Finance Minister in the 2G scam-hit UPA, Pranab was expected to play his role as Congress’ go-to troubleshooter ahead of Modi’s advent in the 2014 general election.
This was despite the fact that his small frame and gentle demeanor did not make for an election slayer. A Rajya Sabha member since 1969, Pranab Mukherjee won only two Lok Sabha elections, 2004 and 2009, from Jangipur, West Bengal. That too, with a margin that was that nothing to write home about.
And yet, a secret embassy cable sent by US envoy David Mulford to secretary defense Donald Rumsfeld ahead of Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to America in 2005, described him as “prime minister-in waiting”.
The cable was among the cache accessed by The Hindu through Wikileaks and described the then Finance Minister as
Someone with influence over both government policy and public opinion, is rivaled only by the prime minister himself. He is, in effect, the deputy prime minister, and we believe he aspires to the top job.
In fact, Pranab Mukherjee came tantalisingly close to the top job on at least two occasions.
First – in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee was No. 2 in the Cabinet. But the suggestion that he take over in the interim was overlooked after Rajiv Gandhi emerged as a consensus candidate for PM.
Second – after the 2004 general election when Sonia Gandhi announced she was not interested in becoming Prime Minister. The Congress President picked Dr Manmohan Singh over Pranab Mukherjee. The decision was as much a shock to Congress as it was to outsiders.
From Prime Minister-in-waiting to the unexpected President, Pranab Mukherjee leaves the Rashtrapati Bhavan with a legacy of a President who did not remain a mute spectator, but fulfilled his role as a guardian of Indian democracy.
On the evening of 24 July, President Pranab Mukherjee will make his final address from the Rashtrapati Bhavan. A quick assessment of the active-politician-turned-President’s tenure reveals a bipartisan leader who was not afraid to speak his mind. All the while, staying within his constitutional boundary.
Build Consensus, Avoid Ordinances
In his Republic Day address in January 2015, President Pranab couldn’t have been more direct in his criticism of the government taking the ordinance route to circumvent opposition on controversial bills.
The Modi government had, at the time, already passed 11 ordinances signed by the President and was preparing a twelfth to increase the cap on foreign direct investment in several crucial sectors including defense and pharmaceuticals.
“There can be no governance without a functioning legislature. The legislature reflects the will of the people. It is the platform where progressive legislation using civilised dialogue must create delivery mechanisms for realizing the aspirations of the people,” said the outgoing President in 2015.
It calls for reconciling the differences amongst stakeholders and building a consensus for the law to be enacted. Enacting laws without discussion impacts the law-making role of the Parliament. It breaches the trust reposed in it by the people. This is neither good for the democracy nor for the policies relating to those laws.
A Lecture to the Opposition
“For God’s sake, do your job” – an exasperated President told parliamentarians while delivering the Defence Estate Day lecture on “Reforms for a stronger democracy” in December 2016.
Keeping decades-long party affiliations aside, Pranab Mukherjee came down hard on the Opposition over the continued logjam during the 2016 Winter Session of Parliament.
The Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), Samajwadi Party, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Left parties had come together to demand a debate on demonetisation under a rule that entailed voting. The government agreed to a debate, but was unwilling to vote on it.
Scenes of Speaker Sumitra Mahajan going from angry to helpless in the face of unruly MPs rushing to the well of he House had become the order of the day.
“For demonstration, you can choose any other place. But for God’s sake, do your job. You are meant to transact business. You are meant to devote your time for exercising the authority of members, particularly Lok Sabha members over money and finance.”
Disruption means you are hurt, you are gagging majority. Majority never participates in this disruption. Only minority comes to the well, shouts slogans, stops the proceedings and creates a situation in which the Chair has no option but to adjourn the House.
Be an Argumentative, not Intolerant Indian
Speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in May 2017, President Pranab spoke about the need to be sensitive to dominant narratives of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree.
Discussion, dissension are crucial to public debate for decision-making in a vibrant, healthy democracy such as India’s. There should always be room for the ‘argumentative Indian’, but not for the ‘intolerant Indian’. That would be contrary to the spirit of the Constitution of India, to the very idea of India itself.
Lessons to the Indian Media
At the same event, Pranab Mukherjee spoke about the dangers of “fake news”, “paid news” and “alternative facts” and the need for the media to intervene and make sense of the cacophony while paying due attention to fact-checking.
“It (the media) must raise and create awareness about issues concerning public welfare, hold public or private institutions and their representatives accountable for all their actions or indeed, their inactions,” he said.
“At the same time, more than ever before, the media needs to play its role with greater responsibility and the utmost respect for facts. I believe fact-checking is one of the most significant roles the media can play in the contemporary space where extreme opinions to the left and to the right, present what is now called `alternative facts’.”
Reject Vigilantism, But Be Vigilant
More recently, President Pranab Mukherjee spoke unequivocally against mob violence. As per data collated by The Quint Lab, there have been 65 cases of mob violence in which 25 people have been killed across India since 2015.
Launching the commemorative publication of the Congress party’s mouthpiece ‘National Herald’ in July 2017, President Pranab Mukherjee cautioned the country to be vigilant against mob vigilantism.
“When mob frenzy becomes so high, irrational and uncontrollable, we have to pause and reflect. Are you vigilant enough? Posterity will demand an explanation from us about what we have done,” he said.
I raise this question within myself. Today, I am not going to suggest that there is any apprehension of the old type of colonialism to come back. But colonialism has always taken its different face with the change of history, exploitation, dominance by one power to another power.
In his final address to the nation as President on 24 July, Pranab Mukherjee credited Prime Minister Modi for the ‘transformational changes he is driving in India”.
I will carry with me fond memories of our association and his warm and courteous behaviour.
However, he also cautioned the government against bypassing Parliament and asked it to take the ordinance route only in “compelling circumstances”.
Last year, the government had presented an ordinance on the Enemy Property Act for a record fifth time bypassing the Rajya Sabha and Opposition protests.
President Pranab Mukherjee also had a message for the Opposition. He spoke about the importance of “debate, discussion and dissent” and said ”disruption hurts the Opposition more”.
He did, however, praise the Parliament for passing the Goods and Services Tax, calling it a “shining example of cooperative federalism.”
Today is 82-year-old President Pranab Mukherjee’s last day in office. He will be succeeded by Ram Nath Kovind.