Millennium Post

Rise and rise of Pranab

From a defeated leader in the 1980 general election to the Rashtrapati Bhavan has been and long and arduous journey for Pranab Mukherjee. Thirty two years ago a diminutive, and crest fallen Mukherjee in a crumpled dhoti and kurta stood in a queue at the AICC headquarters at 24, Akbar Road. A crowd of Congressmen had gathered at the AICC to receive a triumphant Indira Gandhi who had vanquished the Janata party in the 1980 Lok Sabha election and restored her lost glory. Mukherjee had lost the Lok Sabha election from the Bolepur constituency of West Bengal while his party had secured a resounding victory.

During the Janata party rule, when Gandhi was hounded by Janata leaders, Mukherjee stood by her like a rock. During the Emergency, he was her finance and revenue minister and a confidant. But in 1980, he was a defeated leader.

Gandhi had alighted from her car, accepted greetings of party men standing in the queue one by one, stopped near Mukherjee and had a word with him. His political career, which seemed doomed, took a new turn within 24 hours; Mukherjee was inducted in her cabinet and given the portfolio of commerce. She got him elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat – far, far away from his home state. He was later made the finance minister and remained number two in Gandhi’s government till her assassination in October 1984.

The Bengali Babu who stood in a crumpled kurta in front of the AICC 32 years back is now the 13th president of India, having secured a massive victory over his rival P A Sangma. Besides Congress allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), others from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rallied round him. This correspondent has seen Mukherjee style of functioning since 1975. He has a phenomenal memory, even remembering noting on the files made years ago. He reels out facts and figures as if a computer is fitted in his mind. The late P C Sethi and N D Tiwari too had such fantastic memories.

Mukherjee considers C Subramaniam, the father of the green revolution, as his guru who taught him the first lesson in administration. Mukherjee was his junior minister. He must thank his one time bête noir, Mamata Banerjee, for paving his way to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Had she not rushed to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s house after having been told by Sonia Gandhi that either vice president Hamid Ansari or Mukherjee was her party’s presidential candidate, the situation would have been different.

Banerjee and Yadav virtually rejected Gandhi’s choice and floated the name of A P J Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee as presidential candidates. The next day, Mulayam turned a volte face and pitched for Mukherjee. Support started pouring in for Mukherjee; the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, came out in his support, followed by Shiv Sena and other parties. The Congress president had no option but to announce Mukherjee’s  candidature for the presidential election. Had Banerjee not disclosed Mukherjee’s name, perhaps, Ansari would have now been sitting in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The question now being posed is: What type of a president Mukherjee will make? It is certain that he will not be ‘a rubber stamp president’. He will certainly not be a pliable president like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Also, when it comes to taking crucial constitutional decisions, he will rise above political likes and dislikes and be fair to all.

The powers of the president to invite anyone as prime minister have been restricted since the days of Shankar Dayal Sharma. He invited Atal Behari Vajpayee to form the government in 1996 without clarity on how he would get a majority.

K R Narayanan insisted on letters of support. Various Supreme Court judgements have laid down floor test as the ultimate yard stick, which, any president would have to follow. No president can deny Rahul Gandhi – or anyone else – the opportunity to form a government if he, as the leader of his party, can prove his majority. What is more, Mukherjee is unlikely to do something unconstitutional at the end of his long political innings.

How will Pranab Babu fashion his presidency? Will his tenure be like that of the first President, Rajendra Prasad, who enjoyed a parity of stature with Jawaharlal Nehru and advised the government on a number of issues? But, while Prasad often volunteered advice, even when unsolicited, to Nehru, Manmohan Singh is likely to informally seek Mukherjee’s counsel himself.

There are a thousand informal ways for a president to help the prime minister. It is said that an ideal president is one who becomes a source of wise counsel to the prime minister. The PM must feel comfortable calling on the president. Mukherjee must remember that Singh has his share of political difficulties and constraints. If the president joins hands with the PM, the two can resolve many vexed problems.

There was a time when Singh, as Reserve Bank governor used to address Mukherjee, the then finance minister, as ‘Sir’. In 2004, Singh became the prime minister and Mukherjee called him ‘Sir’. Times have changed again and Pranab Babu is the president. His prime minister has no option but to call him ‘Sir’.
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