The 2014 verdict was not a turning point, but historic, says Pranab Mukherjee in his memoirs chronicling the change of an era.
Pranab Mukherjee’s ninth chronicle, his final autobiography, The Presidential Years 2012-2017, details the historic change of era—the ushering in of BJP rule, presided over by a person who, till his elevation to the Raisina Hill, was the main draftsman of Congress strategy. Narendra Modi’s government honoured him with Bharat Ratna after he demitted office, perhaps as token of recognition of the smooth transition of power. The book has critical appreciation of both PMs Mukherjee worked with. He describes Manmohan Singh as “essentially an economist”, a Rajya Sabha member who became PM as he was offered the post by Sonia Gandhi, who had been elected UPA leader in 2004. Describing Narendra Modi as a “politician to the core”, Mukherjee says that Modi “earned and achieved the prime ministership”. The election in 2014 was “not a turning point, but historic”.
Both Mukherjee and Modi are rooted in humble backgrounds. Both worked their way up step by step beginning as ordinary party workers. Mukherjee has dedicated his book to “India’s democracy, which was responsible for a journey that brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a remote village in Bengal to the chandeliers of Rashtrapati Bhavan”. Mukherjee’s journey to New Delhi from Mirati is somewhat similar to Modi’s odyssey from Vadnagar—that seems to have facilitated their bonding.
The transition of power was without glitches as Mukherjee followed the Constitution faithfully. “Our freedom fighters and framers of the Constitution of India—perhaps among the best articulated and fair documents in the world—have toiled hard to give us an India that is free and democratic, and where unity in diversity is our calling card. It is our duty, as citizens, to honour this grand legacy”, he affirms.
“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 toll on governance (he refers to ‘policy paralysis’ and notes that he saw anger growing against the UPA government), Modi seemed to have employed a rather autocratic style of governance during his first term, as seen by the bitter relationship between the government, the legislature and the judiciary. Only time will tell if there is a better understanding of such matters in the second term of this government. It is also important for the government to keep in mind the demands and aspirations of the section of the population that has not voted for it, because the government represents and belongs to all sections of the people, regardless of their voting preference”, he avers.
Mukherjee acknowledges that Modi kept him informed at all times. He admires that Modi started a practice of sending him a note on bilateral relations before every foreign tour he embarked as Rashtrapati and also requested him to discuss strategic issues with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
After Dr Rajendra Prasad, Pranab Mukherejee, the 13th President, is perhaps the most illustrious occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Eminent scholar Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, nuclear scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and other esteemed personalities from a mosaic of backgrounds—politics, diplomacy, education—had occupied this exalted office between 1962, when Rajendra Babu retired and 2012 when Pranab Babu assumed office. Both Prasad and Mukherjee had played yeoman role in Congress politics in their respective phases of history. Prasad came to forefront as organiser of the Champaran satyagraha in 1917, which brought Mahatma Gandhi to the centre stage. Mukherjee was a pivot of the 1978 Congress spilt, which paved the way for Indira Gandhi’s return to power a year later. Prasad had been senior most minister in 1946 after Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel and had been President of the Constituent Assembly. Mukherjee was the de facto Number Two in Indira Gandhi’s last cabinet (1980-84) and head held Finance, External Affairs, Commerce, Defence portfolios besides heading Planning Commission under P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. Like Prasad, Mukherjee was conferred Bharat Ratna.
Unlike Prasad, whose tenure was marked by differences with Prime Minister Nehru on Somnath temple inauguration and Hindu Code Bill (Prasad preferred Uniform Civil Code), Mukherjee had no glitches either with Manmohan Singh (in 2004 many Congressmen had felt Mukherjee could have been a better PM) or with Narendra Modi, who came from a political stream diametrically opposed to the Congress. Mukherjee pays handsome tribute to both PMs he worked with.
Apart from the Prasad-Nehru crevice, Indira Gandhi’s asymmetry with Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and with Gyani Zail Singh after Operation Blue Star had buzzed in New Delhi’s grapevine. Rajiv Gandhi, who was sworn in as PM by Gyani Zail Singh using the President’s discretionary powers (Congress party’s endorsement was post-facto) on 31 October 1984, had an open spat with the Rashtrapati. Gyani had lamented, “Jab khiza thi to khoon hamne diya, jab bahar ayi poochhtey ho hamara kaam kya hai (I had irrigated the garden with my blood during draught; my locus is questioned when flowers have bloomed)” during a chat with this writer in August 1985 when asked about his relationship with the PM.
Recalling his first meeting with the victor of 2014, Mukherjee says Modi produced a newspaper clip of the Rashtrapati’s Republic Day address to the nation that year in which need for a verdict for stable mandate was extolled, and asserted that he had achieved the objective of a clear majority that Mukherjee had envisaged.
“My approach to maintaining cordial relations with PM Modi was rooted in the fact that I believe in the parliamentary form of government and its principle. Modi had received a decisive mandate from the people to administer the country. Administrative powers are vested in the Council of Ministers which the PM heads. Therefore I did not breach my jurisdiction. Whenever tricky occasions arose, the issues were resolved”, Mukherjee says.
He recalls how he insisted on the removal of J.C. Rajkhowa as Governor of Arunachal Pradesh and laments that had the government listened to his caution on the dismissal of Uttarakhand’s Harish Rawat government the negative obiter dicta it received from the Supreme Court could have been avoided. He is critical of the use of the ordinance route and recalls that once he dissuaded a minister who had brought an ordinance for his approval from pursuing the issue.
“PM Modi has brought in a pattern where a major decision is endorsed by the Cabinet or other appropriate bodies after the PMO or he himself has announced the decision”, Mukherjee writes. Recalling 8 November 2016, when after announcing demonetisation Modi briefed him, he says, “There has been criticism that he should have taken lawmakers and the Opposition into confidence… I am of the firm opinion that demonetisation could not have been done with prior consultation…” Mukherjee had issued a statement endorsing the principle of demonetisation, describing it as a “bold step”. He says main objectives of the exercise: fighting corruption, containing terror funding, tackling black money and facilitate a cashless society “have not been met”.
GST had been mooted in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era. Work on it continued during the UPA regimes. Modi chose to introduce GST prior to Mukherjee’s retirement as a mark of respect for the work he had done as UPA Finance Minister on the subject. When Modi discussed the proposal for the midnight session of Parliament with Mukherjee, Ram Nath Kovind’s election as the 14th Rashtrapati had been announced. Trust and coordination between a lifetime Congressman, who was demitting office as President and the RSS pracharak who had led the BJP to a full majority ousting Congress, was on display when GST was rolled out on the midnight of 30 June-1 July 2017, just 24 days ahead of Mukherjee’s retirement. Appropriately, the event was held in the Central Hall of Parliament, where Jawaharlal Nehru had announced India’s “Tryst with destiny” on a midnight nearly 70 years ago—a fitting tribute to the tenacity and vibrancy of Indian democracy.
Referring to a delegation comprising Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Ghulam Nabi Azad submitting a memorandum in April 2017 on alleged irregularities in EVMs, Mukherjee says, “I have always reiterated my faith in this system…it is very difficult, if not impossible, to plan and execute electoral malpractices in a country as large and diverse as India.” Echoing his previous books, in this book too he is critical of disruptions in Parliament. “A disruptive Opposition loses the moral authority to put the government on the mat”. He refers to meetings with Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leadership: “I used one of these occasions to speak my mind to Kejriwal on his penchant for sitting on dharna over frivolous issues”.
Mukherjee has commented against a “hyperactive judiciary”. While he is critical of judicial activism, he points out that dissenting judgements need to be also studied, considering that the Golaknath verdict in 1967 was 6:5 and Keshavanand Bharati was decided by 7:6 majority. Courts need to concern themselves with preserving the basic structure of the Constitution while respecting the elected legislature’s power to legislate.
“I have always maintained that the Governor is not the ruler of a state; he acts on the aid and advise of the council of ministers. The Governor does not even belong to the state, so how can he take on the mantle of the ruler!” Mukherjee says and adds that Governors “must refrain from political activities and stick to the role the Constitution gives them”.
Mukherjee’s tenure saw the Rashtrapati Bhavan being thrown open to the ordinary citizens—through the process on online bookings visits were allowed thrice a week. Trained guides were provided to the visitors. Cultural programmes were introduced where top artists performed. An internship programme was introduced where students and scholars could enrol. An avid reader himself, he revamped the library in which books of 1795 vintage were stored. Writers and artists were invited to stay in the guest wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and do research on its heritage.
The traditional horse buggy for ceremonial drives of the Rashtrapati was recommissioned by Mukherjee. When Barack Obama came as the guest during the 2016 Republic Day, the US Secret Service suggested that the Rashtrapati travel with the US President in his high-security limousine. Mukherjee asked the Ministry of External Affairs to politely convey that on India’s Republic Day the visiting dignitary must respect and trust India’s security agencies—Mukherjee rode to Rajpath in the Presidential buggy, preserving the sovereignty and dignity of India.