Did President Pranab Mukherjee, in his previous post of Union finance minister, act on the information provided by France on 700 high net worth individuals (HNIS) having secret bank accounts in Geneva? Did he try to bring that money back home? Did the wrong-doers face penal action? The latest disclosures by anti-corruption campaigners Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, accusing HSBC Bank of facilitating money-laundering, has drawn attention again to Pranab’s actions as finance minister—and with it, his name is being linked to corruption charges harking back to his nearly six decades in politics. It might be said in his defence that, when you have been so long in politics, it is difficult to emerge without facing any charges. But when Kejriwal and others began a fast against corruption at Jantar Mantar on July 29, as many as 14 Union cabinet ministers were named for involvement in questionable decisions. Pranab’s name—as finance minister—topped that list.
Others, like M.R. Madhavan of PRS Policy Research, take a different view. “Where’s the evidence the president will act in a manner not befitting his office?” he asks. “The president’s post does not envisage someone who would blindly say yes to everything. Besides, this talk of immunity was absent when he held other public offices. Why raise it now?”
Fast forward to last week, when Kejriwal and Bhushan launched their attack on HSBC, accusing the bank of money-laundering and colluding with some politicians and some of the biggest business houses, including industrialist brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani, helping them ferret away unaccounted-for money in Swiss banks. Once again, Pranab, now firmly ensconced as president of the country, found his name tagged along with the Ambani brothers. For most of his political career, Pranab had been dubbed a well-wisher of Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani and his elder son Mukesh. So when Kejriwal accused Pranab of “protecting business heavyweights”, the reference was quite obvious to all.
The allegations don’t stop there. When he was a cabinet minister—he’d also held the defence portfolio and headed many key EGoMs—the navy war room and the Scorpene deal scams had erupted. The point is that Pranab, because of a long stint in politics, in which he essayed many roles, is having to answer for various acts of commission and omission. This also leads to the question of whether an active politician should assume charge of the highest office of the land. Particularly when that happens right after a very active and key stint in government. Says Madhavan, “Many presidents, whether Sanjiva Reddy, Zail Singh, Pratibha Patil, were active politicians. The question is how you conduct yourself in the present office.” That’s a view endorsed by senior advocate Dushyant Dave, who says, “Politicians do not forfeit the right to high constitutional posts because they happen to be politicians.”
Quite recently, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress is a former ally of the UPA government at the Centre, recalled a statement Pranab made in Parliament that all allies would be consulted before a decision on FDI in retail was taken. As the Congress protested that the president’s office should not be dragged into the matter, Mamata wondered if the government had deviated from Pranab’s assurance. On the eve of the winter session of Parliament, in which the FDI issue is likely to erupt again, there’s even talk of a no-confidence motion. A man who was in the thick of it will now be the arbitrar, occupying as he does an office that’s supposed to be above all bias.
But even if we were to overlook Pranab’s role in the upa’s two editions, there are other stories buried in his past. After the Emergency was lifted, a commission of inquiry was set up in 1977 under Justice J.C. Shah to look into alleged excesses committed then. A young Pranab, say sources, could not “proffer satisfactory responses” to the commission. Pranab had been MoS finance, and five cases investigated related to the Income Tax department, over which he presided. V.U. Eradi, former member of the Central Board of Direct Taxes and the officer dealing with tax matters in the Shah Commission, says, “History and propriety demand an answer from Pranab Mukherjee.” Eradi had found that some I-T raids had been stage-managed and two trade union leaders’ homes were searched. Eradi also says the government’s plea that a treaty with France against double taxation prevents disclosure of the 700 names is “as bad a lie as can be, for the treaty does not rule out investigation.”
There are others who will argue that the Shah Commission was a revenge by the Janata government headed by Morarji Desai, so resurrecting such charges today can be seen as motivated. The good news for Pranab is that he enjoys complete legal immunity as long as he is in office. But in the age of round-the-clock TV, when corruption is a daily show, fingers can be pointed at an office now occupied by one of the most active and skilled politicians of recent times.
Is the president a politician (The Ghosts Pay A Call, Nov 26)? Can he be judged?
Is the President a politician? No, he is not. Should he be judged? I don't know if it is possible, if he is in office. The parliament is the institution which appoints him. Should a President appear in court? Is this possible, when he or she is serving?
When a minister makes a statement or gives an assurance, he is doing so on behalf of the government. This is not to be confused with the usual, "I was misquoted" or "I was quoted out of context" kind of rubbish that politicians trot out when cornered. If it is accepted that the statement has come from the government, it is a commitment to which the government is bound and it cannot escape the onus merely because the said minister later occupies the President's office and enjoys immunities. Congress was bound by the statement that all allies would be consulted before a decision was taken on FDI, as Mamata rightly pointed out. Saying that the President's office should be kept out of this is merely a Congress ploy seeking an easy escape route. The President's office has nothing to do with it.
No politcian is immortal & the President is a politician and remains so. He must be prosecuted. Look at Bill Clinton, the former Israeli President & many other cases in countries that have a modification of the Westminster Constitution. Its perfectly possible and if he is found culpable, the action and the powers-to-be in the judiciary should not be feckless to not take action against him.
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