When was the last time the photoshoot of a sitting President of India broke the internet?
When Pranab Mukherjee, India’s 13th president, took the inaugural stroll at the Mughal Gardens in 2015, his photographs became the talk of the town. His tenure ends next week as Ram Nath Kovind prepares to fill his shoes as the 14th President of India. The tulip beds of Rashtrapati Bhawan shall miss their rockstar president; the Indian public, probably, will not. Mukherjee has not indicated retirement from public life, though it is unlikely he will get back to being an active Congressman.
Will He, Should He?
Contrary to widely held views, Mukherjee could still do a ghar wapsi to Congress. The Constitution of India does not bar former presidents from going back to their political packs. However, as a matter of convention, none of the earlier presidents went back to the world of active politics. Whether this ‘jinx’ will be broken with the 13th president, remains to be seen.
Despite his reputation as an Indira Gandhi acolyte, Mukherjee has had a love-hate relationship with the Congress party. Perceiving marginalisation within the party after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he floated his own Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress in West Bengal in 1986. Rajiv Gandhi was suspicious that Mukherjee had his eye on the post of Prime Minister and it soured their relationship.
A merger with the mother party happened just three years later but this ghost kept returning to haunt him at various stages of his political career. Although Narasimha Rao was successful in bringing Mukherjee back to the Congress mainstream, the latter continued to have an uneasy relationship with many of his fellow Congressmen. When the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004, Mukherjee was passed over, despite being a political heavyweight, in favour of Manmohan Singh.
Another Operation Forward?
While most of us look at the early 90s as the turning point in India’s socio-economic history, it was during Mukherjee’s first tenure as the Finance Minister (1982-84) that the foundation of the ‘liberalisation’ was laid. Through tax reforms and incentives to the NRIs for investing in India, Mukherjee played an elemental role in changing the economic outlook of a nation that had hitherto wrapped itself in a faux sense of self-sufficiency.
As a young Finance Minister in the early 80s, Mukherjee had launched “Operation Forward” to reinvigorate a nation that could not shed its paranoia about the West, thanks to the East India Company. He had realised that social advancement could not be dreamt of without economic underpinnings.
As a former President of India, Mukherjee is well-poised for “Operation Forward 2.0.” This time to help elevate the tone of our national discourse, when each passing day competes with its predecessor in setting new lows for the same.
M Is The Word
In an increasingly polarised socio-political climate, an astute moderate voice is the need of the hour. At one of his last official functions as the president, Mukherjee recently spoke about his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
We have acted in close cooperation. It is not that there cannot be any divergence of view. Surely, there have been divergences of views. But we have been able to keep those divergences, if there be any, only to ourselves.Pranab Mukherjee, President of India
Mukherjee retained his independence of thought without coming across as confrontational during his presidency. This trait defined his career as a parliamentarian too. His knack for conflict resolution served the Congress-led UPA well in securing the opposition’s support over critical issues. He will do well as an interlocutor in the times when conversations with the “other” are plummeting.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Should Mukherjee decide to stay in the public eye, his vast repertoire of knowledge owing to his stints as the boss in ministries like Defence, External Affairs, and Finance, combined with redoubtable memory, could be a force to reckon with. His sense of history could shape important lessons for the public institutions in India that are losing their credibility faster than ever.
Under his leadership in the interesting year of 1991, the Planning Commission stated in its ‘Directional Paper’ for the eighth five-year plan:
The state has to play more of a facilitating role and to concentrate on protecting the interests of the poor and the underprivileged.Objectives, Thrusts and Macro-Dimensions of the Eighth Plan
The time is ripe for bringing this sentiment back to the public discourse. The Indian state, increasingly becoming a nanny-state, needs to be reminded of its role yet again. What better man than Mukherjee, then, to build the necessary bridges between the government and the naysayers!