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.
“When everyone tries to act like a battering ram, basic constitutional conventions are bound to be ignored.”
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress spokesman
But just an hour into fasting, as word got out that Pranab’s name had been nominated for president, someone came forward and covered his photograph with a cloth. Was that in deference to the president’s office, which, at least during the last decade or so, had remained above reproach? “On the contrary,” explains Bhushan, “the symbolic act of covering up meant that the president cannot be questioned anymore. He enjoys the privileges of immunity while in office. I did mention his name thrice in the course of addressing the people who had gathered that day.”
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.
“History and propriety demand an answer from Pranab for his actions during the Emergency.”
V.U. Eradi, Ex-member, CBDT
Last year, HSBC shared a list of Indians who hold bank accounts in its Geneva branch. Elaborating, Kejriwal says that, as of 2006, the balance in these accounts added up to Rs 6,000 crore. “The government had admitted that some of the 700 accounts had been taxed for Rs 181 crore. This is an admission of guilt. Did Pranab Mukherjee initiate action against them? Some houses were raided and others let off. There are reasons to believe that the president’s strong leaning towards some business houses might directly or indirectly impact decisions, even though his current post is largely ceremonial,” says Kejriwal.
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.
“With the immunity Pranab now has, the Radia tape disclosures, tax breaks to Reliance will go unanswered.”
Prashant Bhushan, Anti-corruption crusader
The Congress defends itself, and indirectly, Pranab too. “When everyone is trying to act like a battering ram, basic constitutional conventions are neccesarily thrown to the winds. It is particularly sad that this very issue of black money was discussed by the finance ministry and its former head several months ago both in the SC proceedings and in the public domain,” says its spokesman.
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.”
“Politicians don’t forfeit the right to high offices just because they were politicians.”
—Dushyant Dave, SC advocate
Era Sezhiyan, who was an MP from 1962-77 and compiled and resurrected the Shah commission report as Shah Commission Report: Lost, and Regained when it was sought to be buried, laments that the “era of politicians being scrupulously clean is over.”
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.