Ode to an outgoing President
President Pranab Mukherjee retires on July 25 paving the way for a new president to take over. The BJP is not keen to give him a second term, and the President has also declared that he is not seeking one. The Rashatrapthi Bhavan will have a new tenant as the BJP has the adequate number to choose his successor.
Several presidents before Mukherjee have left behind their footprints in the Raisina Hills. India's first President Rajendra Prasad was the tallest among them. We have had erudite Presidents like Sarvapalali Radhakrishnan. Abdul Kalam was called the People's President; Sanjiva Reddy and Giani Zail Singh had had a tumultuous relationship with the executive. There were docile presidents like Fakrudin Ali Ahmed who signed the emergency papers on the dotted line and copybook presidents like R Venkataraman and KR Narayanan. Pratibha Patil was one who did not leave behind any legacy. What kind of legacy will Pranab Mukherjee leave behind after his five-year term? He said in a recent TV interaction, "I don't want to leave a legacy because it is a democracy. Democracy is a mass, and I am a part of the mass. I will melt into the mass. Melt into thin air. I would like to be in the midst of the people. I won't leave any legacy."
Mukherjee's term was, by and large, non-controversial and he did not have many challenges. Mukherjee was a UPA nominee with his long experience as a Congress leader. In his acceptance speech, he said, "I would like to thank the people of India for electing me to this high office. The enthusiasm, the warmth of the people, was remarkable. I have received much more from the people of this country, from the Parliament, than I have given. Now I have been entrusted with the responsibility of protecting and defending the Constitution as President. I will try and justify the trust of the people."
The 2014 Lok Sabha polls would have been his first test, but the BJP came to power on its own although political pundits predicted another coalition government. Right from the beginning the relationship between the Modi government and the President was cordial. His office rose to the occasion when Modi decided to invite the Heads of state of the neighbouring countries for his swearing-in ceremony.
As the Constitutional head, he had hosted governor's conferences and often held video conferences with them.
Mukherjee's relationship with Parliament also was cordial. Members of Parliament from all parties often used to meet him and so did the leaders of the political parties as he kept himself abreast of the political situation in the country. Being a long time Parliamentarian, last month he said in Jaipur, "The huge power vested in the members of Lok Sabha, members of legislative assemblies of all 29 states by 800 million people...if we do not utilise that privilege and power, we are ourselves to blame."
On the diplomatic side, it is the President who receives the ambassadors when they are posted to India. He also hosts banquets when the presidents and prime ministers visit India and interact with them during their visit. He has opened up the Rashtrapati Bhavan guest wing and hosted dignitaries including Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh), Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan), King of Bhutan, and Emperor of Japan among others. He has also interacted with visiting dignitaries including Barack Obama (US), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Francois Hollande (France), Abe (Japan), among others.
During his term, Mukherjee has visited several countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Namibia, Ghana, New Zealand, Palestine, Belgium, Sweden, Israel, New Zealand, Jordan, and Bhutan. He had hosted the Second Summit of Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC) and Second Summit of Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC).
While Mukherjee is credited with raising the right issues understanding the public mood but on matters like the imposition of President' Rule, he had signed on the dotted lines, and it was the Supreme Court which reversed these decisions. His critics feel that he could have sent it back once like his predecessor KR Narayanan did, but insiders say that he has recorded his objection on file.
Mukherjee asserted his powers vis-a-vis the government, by rejecting its recommendations while considering mercy petitions of death row convicts. He has rejected 30 (including the two he rejected last week) in contrast to three of his predecessors who together rejected mercy petitions of six death row convicts. Mukherjee spoke his mind on several issues. He had clear views on inclusive politics, corruption and tolerance. On intolerance, he said in one of his speeches, "We are one nation. This mutual co-existence, mutual understanding is our strength. Managing this diversity is our greatest strength. If it is said Indians are argumentative, I will agree. But if it is said Indians are intolerant, I refuse to agree. Intolerance has never been allowed."
He noted that a legislature was effective "only if it can address the differences amongst stakeholders and succeeds in building a consensus for the law to be enacted and enforced," referring to the Centre issuing eight ordinances in the space of as many months because of its lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha.
The legacy of Mukherjee will be remembered for embedding grassroots innovations at different levels in institutions of higher education and governance. A very empathetic ecosystem in the country has emerged through the patronage at the Presidential level.
On the whole, the president leaves Raisina Hills to live a quiet life, setting up a foundation and reading and writing books, but he will be remembered as an able President.IPA
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)