July 04, 2020
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The Art Of The State

When someone as political as Pranab becomes president, does it cause problems?

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The Art Of The State
Tribhuvan Tiwari
The Art Of The State

Close For Comfort?

  • Pranab Mukherjee has shown himself to be an interventionist
  • His defence of his tenure as FM after P. Chidambaram blamed it can be said to borderline on propriety
  • He was apparently in the mood to return the government’s ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers
  • He has had meetings with Modi at Raisina Hill, and Mamata in Calcutta
  • It’s being asked if he sees himself as performing a political role


Relations between the chief executive and the first citizen in Rashtrapati Bhavan have mostly been cordial and answering to the textbook requirement of being grounded in consultation and cooperation. But there have been cold war phases and games of brinkmanship too. Right from Rajendra Prasad, each occupant of Ras­htrapati Bhavan has tried to interpret the president’s role according to his or her understanding of the Constitution. The process has also been influenced by their varied personalities. Prasad had a run-in with Nehru on Kashmir and the Hindu Code Bill. His successor, the sch­olarly S. Rad­h­a­krishnan, felt it within his rights to criticise the government’s “cre­dulity and negligence” for India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China. He went to the extent of joking with foreign diplomats that, in the wake of prime minister Shastri’s death, it would perhaps be good for India to remain under President’s rule for a while. In the 1980s, Giani Zail Singh made the headlines with his run-INS with Rajiv Gandhi, a phase that saw the delicate constitutional onus envisa­ged for the first citizen being examined afresh. Sub­sequent years have passed without a major con­troversy, but the debate on the role of each side isn’t over.

Into this slightly chequered history walks President Pranab Mukh­erjee, the most political of recent incumbe­nts. His hogging of the headlines all of last fortnight has brought a fresh buzz around the old debate. So how should one interpret the flattering comments by columnists and even the BJP, those who spare the prime minister and his government no criticism? Their praise has centred around Pranab’s intervention on two key issues—the ordinance on convicted lawmakers and Pakistan’s complicity in terror. Is the president unwittingly getting caught in the war of words between the BJP and the ruling UPA in the build-up to 2014? Firing at the UPA from Pranab’s shoulder does ser­ve the BJP’s purpose. But some are also asking whether Pranab is a willing participant in this drama. At any rate, the President gaining an enhanced pro­file and equity before what is wid­ely  anticipated to be a hung Parliament is an interesting phenomenon.

Pranab’s journey to Raisina Hill was not straightforward. The Congress was reluctant to make him the presidential candidate, mainly because they did not feel they could spare him, so dependent were they on his political skills. But Pratibha Patil’s lacklustre claim on a second term was a factor. Moreover, Pranab, through some effec­tive campaigning, wrought a conse­nsus among parties outside the Congress. Indeed, there was said to be a fear that if he wasn’t nominated, he could well cont­est as an independent and most likely win, causing emba­rrassment to the Congress. Making a virtue of it, the party finally put its weight behind him.

But far from being an avuncular emi­nence grise resigned to his sinecure, Pranab is putting a more activist gloss on the role of the president. His perce­ptible taste for the centrestage is worrying not only the Congress but also the BJP. Pranab’s forthcoming Patna visit on Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s invitation, which the BJP has requested him to reschedule as it clashes with a planned rally for its prime ministerial candid­ate Narendra Modi, is a case in point. It might be said that Pranab had set the tone he would take in office in his very acc­eptance speech: “The principal res­ponsibility of this office is to function as the guardian of our Constitution. I will strive, as I said on oath, to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution not just in word but also in spirit.”

Those who know the president well say as a committed constitutionalist, Pranab will play by the book and not do anything that emb­arrasses him or sullies the image of his high office. But Pranab is also a political animal, having held portfolios under various PMs. Besides close brus­hes with prime ministership—an unre­qu­ited dream that got partial reco­mpense only now, with this role—he was the UPA’s chief troubleshooter, who toiled away at multiple crises. We are seeing an almost unbroken continuation of that phase of hyperactivity, but now it carries different implicati­ons. Much of what he is doing may well be within constitutional provisions but it hasn’t stopped people from talking. Take Pranab’s penchant for holding lunches with sundry party leaders or CMs. It’s something his predecessors too may have done without attracting any attention, but in his case it’s seen as an attempt to remain in the thick of things.

During his year’s stint in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he has not limited himself to consulting and meeting party leaders in his Raisina Hill estate. He has also held such meetings during his visits to states. If he held a 45-minute meeting with Modi in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he also did not forget to meet Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. Pranab’s son recently called on Laloo Prasad Yadav in prison—seen as an attempt to convey that, despite Pranab’s counsel against the ordinance, there’s nothing personal, no hard feelings. Says an admirer, “You can take Pranab babu out of politics, but you cannot take politics out of him.”

His supporters insist that so far Pranab has stuck to the role he spoke of in his acceptance speech. Explaining his looming presence, they say he is neither trying to be “assertive” nor is he willing to be a mere “rubber stamp”. “If there’s any role he is playing, it’s the role of a constitutional president,” says a commentator sympathetic to the stand Pranab has taken on some key issues.

Though his reservations on the ordinance issue brought him into media focus, it was Pranab’s attempt to publicly defend his policy during his stint as finance minister that first led people to realise he won’t play a docile role— esp­ecially when finance minister P. Chid­ambaram was repeatedly blaming him for the economic slowdown. “It was well within his right to put the record straight, since he saw no such defence coming from either the Congress leadership or the prime minister’s office,” says a Pranab sympathiser.

On the ordinance, sources say Pranab went through wide-ranging consultat­ions, with political parties as also legal and constitutional experts. Via this process, he came to the view that the government would not be able to justify the grounds of “extreme urgency” that led it to bring the ordinance on convicted lawmakers. Therefore, instead of embarrassing the government by having to return an ordinance, Pranab played a masterstroke. He decided to express his concerns to key ministers of the UPA, but in private. Duly conveyed, his opinion had its effect.

Then came his unexpected spurt of plainspokenness on foreign policy. His criticism of Pakistan soon after the first-ever meeting between Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif was seen by sections in the MEA as going against the spirit in which the talks in New York were held. Others argue that what he said was not contrary to the government’s stand: as defence and foreign minister, Pranab had made these points repeatedly. There were many who felt happy that no less a person than the president of the country was trying to talk straight with Pakistan, especially at a time when its army was involved in pushing infiltrators into India at the Keran sector along the Line of Control. So is Pranab trying to play the role of the nation’s conscience-keeper, or what some commentators describe as the “Presidential differential”­—where a delicate balance is struck in safeguarding the constitution while also articulating the people’s mood? Or is he still “India’s consensus-builder”, which is what, interestingly enough, even Belg­ium’s King Philippe described Pranab as in his banquet speech. The monarch was impressed not only with the Indian president’s wide knowledge of international issues but also how his growing role is being seen by many in India. 

It took 17 years for Pranab to walk into Rashtrapati Bhavan after an astrologer predicted, at 60, that he would get the top job in the land. With a growing opinion predicting a fractured verdict in 2014, do we see a bigger role for Pranab? No one knows for sure. But one thing is certain: from now on till the end of the elections, every move of the “constitutional president” will be closely watched by key political figures and the vibrant Indian media.

Raisina Spill
How the president has been in the news

Rupee Crash
Finance minister P. Chidambaram attributes fall in rupee value to spurt in deficit caused by

“certain decisions that we took during the period 2009 to 2011”.

President Pranab Mukherjee, who was FM between 2009 and 2012:

“All of us are concerned about the slow growth of the GDP in 2011-12 and 2012-13. It began in 2008-09 when, as a consequence of a major international financial crisis, India’s GDP growth came down from 9 per cent-plus to 6.7 per cent.

European news channel Euronews:

“India says this is state-sponsored terrorism, but Pakistan says that it is not state-sponsored terrorism.”

President Mukherjee:

“No it might not be, but non-state actors, that is the phrase they use, then I respond by saying that  non-state actors are not coming from heaven. Non-state actors are coming from territory under your control.”

Political Mood

“Is it important to have a charismatic leader to win these polls?”

President Mukherjee:

“Whether a leader is charismatic depends on whether he or she is able to get the vote. Charisma is tested by them. I can tell you as a political activist that during elections, we always talk of a wave or wind. But a wave or wind can be found out once it is over. When it’s coming or when it is blowing, nobody can say where the wind is blowing or the wave is moving.”

Criminal MPs’ Ordinance
L.K. Advani says Pranab, not Rahul Gandhi, should get credit for withdrawal of ordinance to shield criminal MPs

President Mukherjee, who met four cabinet ministers before Rahul outburst:

“I cannot comment on the views of the opposition. Whoever wanted to seek appointment with me, I gave them. BJP leaders met me, Aam Aadmi Party met me. I received various representations (against the ordinance).”

Bihar Rally
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar invites President to Bihar on October 27

BJP complains that JD(U), which left NDA after Narendra Modi’s elevation as campaign panel chief, is playing politics; claims Nitish is using the President’s visit to stymie ‘hunkar’ rally in Patna.

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