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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 25 New Delhi June 13, 2015

Indiscreet President

Saturday 13 June 2015, by Kuldip Nayar

Heads of institutions are not generally assailed. The idea behind such thinking is that the criticism may harm the institutions, which are essential for the sustenance of democratic polity. Germane to this idea is the presidency. Therefore, the President is spared even when he or she crosses the line that the office delineates. Because of this consideration, President Pranab Mukherjee has escaped censure even when a person at an equally high office has been crucified. This does not, however, give him any licence. He should not be exploiting the prero-gative as he does.

In his autobiography, which he purposely launched while occupying the high office, Mukherjee has justified the Emergency. His act was wrong from all analysis, constitutionally, legally and ethically. During the Emergency, one hundred thousand people were detained without trial. The press was shackled and all funda-mental rights were suspended. The government was run by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, and the extra-constitutional authority that he wielded.

Yet, the critics let Pranab Mukherjee off the hook because of the esteem the office he occupies evokes. However, his latest statement is unfortu-nate. He says that the Bofors gun scandal was a figment of Indian media’s imagination. Having known all about the scandal, how could Pranab Mukherjee make such an irresponsible statement?

That Mukherjee was a loyal functionary of Mrs Indira Gandhi is well known. But how can he blame the media? He knows that none in India had even a scent of the scandal, much less the media. Rajiv Gandhi had purposely selected the Bofors gun because he could funnel the kickbacks to his in-laws in Italy directly. That they became affluent overnight is an open secret. Rajiv Gandhi had not whispered about the direct deal to anyone in the Cabinet. None had any clue whatsoever.

It was a Swedish radio station which broke the story first. The source was a “deep throat” whose name has not been revealed till today. He passed on the information to Chitra Subramaniam, a journalist who was then working for The Indian Express. The “deep throat” was an insider and felt horrified over the bribery, which was first placed at Rs 64 crores but turned out to be in the neighbourhood of Rs 3000 crores.

No doubt, Pranab Mukherjee finds politics a familiar turf but he left it when he was elected the President. His grievance with Congress President Sonia Gandhi may be genuine. But that is between him and her. The nation is not concerned with what goes on in a political party.

Mukherjee had taken it for granted that because of the key role in which he had been portrayed as a firefighter during the Congress party’s troubled times, he could not be ignored for having served the dynasty relentlessly. But Sonia’s determination to make her son, Rahul Gandhi, the Prime Minister came in the way of Mukherjee’s political ambitions. Though he was exasperated, Mukherjee soon realised the mood and announced that he would not contest the 2014 elections. Sonia readily agreed to the position because he had himself cleared the decks for Rahul Gandhi.

Nevertheless, since his election as the President Mukherjee has been making speeches verging on politics. He has been commenting on the problems confronting the nation as if he is the Prime Minister of the country. His first Republic Day broadcast beat them all and had naturally evoked some angry comments. Several political parties like the CPI characterised the speech as political.

What President Mukherjee had said during the speech may be generally correct. For example, his remarks that populist anarchy is no substitute for governance or that there is a rising trend of hypocrisy in public life are right. But he had forgotten that he was only a constitutional head and had to observe the decorum which the elected Parliament and State Legislatures expected from a person who occupied that position. The office of President is an institution which should not be allowed to be disfigured. Yet the political leaders do that. That Mukherjee should also be doing so is a sad commentary on his sagacity.

President Mukherjee’s indiscretion may well be a ventilation of his grievance against the denial of prime ministership, which was due to him. He was an automatic choice for the post. He was tall enough in the Congress party and had proved his ability at the various offices he had occupied. What he did not know—he realised it later—was that Mrs Sonia Gandhi wanted to rule herself but feared to do so lest her Italian nationality should jeopardise the chances of her children—the inheritors of the Gandhi-Nehru heritage.

Sonia was looking for a stalking horse, a dummy that she could use to rule herself. She found Manmohan Singh fitting into her scheme of things. He was clean, competent and an ideal shield to attack from behind. He had no group, was all by himself, and would be dependent on her to continue as the Prime Minister.

No doubt, Sonia ruled the country through him for 10 years. It was a strange spectacle of power with no responsibility. Official files went to her residence and the notes written on her instructions were carried out without the deletion of even a comma. Manmohan Singh’s Information Advisors, who have written books on his regime, admit in print that he was a non-entity. The surprising point is: why have they written this when he is not in power? Not even once did they bring to his notice the general impression that his government was being run from 10, Janpath, the residence of Sonia Gandhi. They too are guilty of misusing the authority which rightly belonged to the Prime Minister.

My experience is that a Prime Minister pays scant attention to a President. The Constitution-framers, who preferred parliamentary democracy to a presidential form of government, have laid down what the President can do. This has, however, been nullified over the years because political parties take the President’s wishes for granted. But with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in saddle, the change is already perceptible. Mukherjee’s comments on topics like the Emergency are decades old and he has not even remotely referred to the present. If and when he does, it would be interesting to watch how Modi reacts.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com