Pranab Mukherjee is closely related to the meteoric rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, the pivotal character of Hamish McDonald’s The Polyester Prince (published in India as Ambani & Sons). Lola Nayar spoke to McDonald. Excerpts:
How would you describe the evolution of Pranab Mukherjee, his friendship with Dhirubhai Ambani, as a Indira Gandhi and a Rajiv Gandhi man?
He was a friend of Dhirubhai way back when he was a minister for commerce, giving all the export-import licences (to Reliance). And then as finance minister (FM) in the Indira Gandhi government — it goes back to the time of those Isle of Man companies (1979-82), the dummy companies and the mysterious churning of Reliance shares. There were also perceived preferential treatments of the import duties on the ingredients of polyester, such as Reliance vis-a-vis Bombay Dyeing … that’s ancient history now. Then came the Rajiv era, when more or less Rajiv created an arm of the Congress in 1984-85; he saw Mukherjee as part of the problematic, old guard Congress. Eventually Mukherjee got back into the party and became a loyal spear- carrier and obviously won Sonia’s favour in the 1990s and beyond.
The next big accusation of partisanship came when Mukherjee was put in charge of the ministerial committee that handled the Bay of Bengal gas fields and the gas pricing. By that stage, the linkage had moved on to Mukesh Ambani’s group. So people saw Mukherjee and Murli Deora (then petroleum minister) being friends of the second generation of Reliance. But it was all done in a way that fitted all the norms… so one can’t accuse him of anything untoward, expect perhaps that he clearly took a fairly favourable view on the company’s development. So the history of his relations with the Ambanis goes back a long long way to the 1980s where he is seen as having flourished under the patronage of a very wealthy tycoon. But then, the whole Congress Party did, and Indira and eventually Rajiv also did after a lot of trials and tribulations...
Currently, is he more of a Mukesh Ambani man or Anil Ambani man? Or does he continue to ride both boats?
I think he would be seen— and Congress would be seen — as more of a Mukesh Ambani friend. Obviously Anil went off to connect with the Samajwadi Party... All that has rather fallen apart, so I guess Pranab now being a part of the Congress mainstream would have been closer to Mukesh and listening to him.
Often we hear corruption charges against him... Has he allowed rent- seeking in the Indian economy?
I don’t think that’s the main thing you could accuse him of in the last few years. I think the problem has been his general management of the economy over the past few years. Really it’s a responsibility of the government as a whole, as the reform has been seen as lacking and sapping away. You had the fiasco of the announcement of the retail sector being opened up and then suddenly the door shutting in; the mixed signal to foreign investors; lack of control over the budget deficit; and the general sense of drift. The Congress had taken its eye off the ball. And if Prime Minister Mammohan Singh was trying steer back to the economic rigour that he had tried to introduce in the 1990s, he wasn’t being listened to any more. That’s really coming back to bite the Congress.
Are there any anecdotes you would like to share about Pranab Mukherjee’s closeness with Ambanis?
You’ll have to go back to the Isle of Man companies (11 NRI companies were allowed to invest in Reliance) and the mysterious companies called Crocodile Investments and Fiasco Investments, about which Mukherjee kept saying he didn’t know what they were. He’s a very able man in his way, has handled a lot of big portfolios— finance, commerce, foreign affairs. He masters the brief very well, and he's no fool. He and all his other political colleagues thought Dhirubhai and his famous animal spirits is what needed to be unleashed in India. They saw it in the national interest to be helping him along.
He’s a star, and like all politicians he’s got this great self belief, and ability to bounce back after what seemed like a career that was ending. So you have to give him credit for that. Looking from a long distance, it seems to be little bit of a competition to see who would be kicked upstairs to the Presidency, either him or the PM. And probably the one who gets made President is the loser in that raffle.
Pranab is not really the guy who is going to rescue the Congress and pull the coalition through to victory in 2014. As able as he is, he looks like the quintessential Bengali babu. He is getting on a bit and is not the face of the new India. Manmohan is the face of the decent, democratic old guard…the wise man of India. Manmohan has a better image.
Would Pranab be the first among Dhirubhai’s friends to make it as president?
I don’t think it matters. The Presidency does come into importance during an era of minority governments and fragile coalitions. But it’s a long stretch to wield commercial interests out of that.
Do you see Pranab as someone who is capable of charting his own way?
I think he has been a pretty competent minister capable of handling his portfolio on his own. But he is a bit of a soiled politician, if you like. He’ll have to pull himself out of the cut and thrust of politics and a wheeling and dealing of policy making. He’s not a young man anymore, and he’s not an exciting man. I don’t think he’s going to be a particularly dynamic figure head for India, but then a president rarely is.
Do you feel he will make a good president of India? How is he perceived overseas?
I don’t think he’s made much of an impact overseas, at all…. I don’t think he’s ever come out with any bold plans for the economy or to push the WTO forward or get an agreement on carbon pricing or global emissions trading. He’s not come out with any initiatives. He’s yet another Indian politician who quibbles about details.
Is this an elevation then? Will he continue to play politics?
He would probably do what the party wants him to do and take advice... It really takes him out of the real running of India.
When was the last time you had an interaction with Mukherjee?
In the late 1990s when he was the foreign minister... He’s deft in not saying much in a lot of words.
For the Ambanis, do you think this is as far as he can be their friend in the corridors of power?
I don’t know. Maybe they need a younger generation of political friends.
A shorter version of this interview appears in print