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This President is no rubber stamp. He could play a key role in 2014
SUTANU GURU | Issue Dated: October 20, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Pranab Mukherjee | President | |

History and destiny can often bypass you by a whisker. On 31st October, 1984, India was convulsed and plunged into a crisis when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards. In a mature democracy, Pranab Mukherjee, the senior most Minister in the Union Cabinet and a close confidante of Mrs Gandhi, would have been sworn in as the interim Prime Minister of India till the Congress party elected a replacement. No one knows whether Pranab Mukherjee actually nursed dreams of occupying the top post. The fact is: dynastic democracy won and Rajiv Gandhi was 'unanimously elected' as the Prime Minister of India. This created a wall of trust deficit between the two that was never really breached. Incidentally, the President of India then was Giani Zail Singh. When he was chosen by Indira Gandhi to be the President, Zail Singh had made his intentions of being a rubber stamp publicly clear by announcing that he would sweep the halls of Parliament if Mrs Gandhi so desired. And yet, relations between this Gandhi family loyalist and Rajiv Gandhi had deteriorated to such an extent that the incestuous world of political gossip in Delhi in 1987 was awash with rumours of Singh contemplating the sacking of Rajiv Gandhi.

About 20 years down the road on May 19, 2004, history and destiny once again  bypassed Pranab Mukherjee by a whisker. After the surprise defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA in Lok Sabha elections, Sonia Gandhi delivered a bigger surprise by by heeding to her 'conscience' and refusing to become the Prime Minister despite groveling entreaties of sycophantic Congressmen. Mrs Gandhi had to choose between the vastly experienced politician Pranab Mukherjee and the quintessentially safe bureaucrat Dr Manmohan Singh. Once again, we will probably never know to what extent the shadow of 1984 affected Sonia Gandhi's final decision. But the fact is: on May 19, 2004, the then President A. P. J Abdul Kalam appointed Dr Singh as the Prime Minister and invited him to form the next government. Of course, there are people in India including leaders like Dr Subramaniam Swamy who insist that it was President Kalam and his reluctance to rubber stamp Sonia Gandhi as the Prime Minister that eventually led to Pranab Mukherjee losing his date with destiny for the second time in 20 years. In public, the 13th President of India has never expressed any regret at being denied the top post.

Yet, actions can often speak louder than words. Ever since he became the Supreme Commander of the armed forces in July, 2012, Pranab Mukherjee has done three fundamental things: First, he has echoed public sentiments and responded to the concerns of citizens in a manner that the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has simply failed to do. Second, in just about a year, he has managed to virtually erase the embarrassing memories that were the legacy of his predecessor Pratibha Patil. Third and most important, he has given ample indications that he will never be the rubber stamp family loyalist that Pratibha Patil was perceived to be by everybody.

It is the public spectacle over the now withdrawn ordinance to protect and shield convicted politicians that indicated the embarrassing truth to Congress leaders: Pranab Mukherjee will not blindly rubber stamp whimsical, unpopular and possibly unconstitutional diktats of the government even as he publicly remains the titular Head of State. The prevailing consensus seems to be that Rahul Gandhi – for reasons unknown and inexplicable – chose to publicly denounce the ordinance and tear his own government to shreds despite the ordinance having received the approval and blessings of his mother and de facto ruler of India Sonia Gandhi. When Dr Manmohan Singh swallowed his public humiliation and the ordinance was withdrawn, spin masters of the Congress argued how the stance taken by Rahul Gandhi reflected his genuine desire to "change the rotten system". We don't know how ordinary citizens and voters have interpreted this petulant display of gamesmanship by Rahul Gandhi. But the fading patriarch of the BJP, L.K Advani echoed the views held by numerous Indians when he posted a blog on October 4, 2013. The headline of the blog was crystal clear: "It is Pranabda, not Rahul, who saved the situation". The Hindi headline of the blog was even more compelling: "Rahul nahin, Pranabda ne bachai izzat". Advani went on to write in the blog: "That most of the media reports on this development have described it as a victory for Rahul Gandhi is a comment on how superficial the media has generally become these days... It seems these Ministers were told that the President had reservations about signing the Ordinance. This must have alarmed the Ministers. The President returning the Ordinance to the Government unsigned would have been a major setback for Government...It is perhaps then that Soniaji might have thought of doing some damage control using Rahul for the purpose..The victory that has come to the country by withdrawal of this illegal and immoral ordinance has thus been thanks only to the Rashtrapati, who has proved that UPA would err seriously if it assumed that like most other Congressmen who had earlier occupied the high office of President, he too would remain a rubber stamp President!"

Congress leaders could be justified in dismissing the claims made in the Advani blog as efforts of a political opponent to take advantage of a sensitive situation and embarrass the ruling party and government. But common sense suggests that Sonia Gandhi and her advisors must have heard the message loud and clear that Pranab Mukherjee was not in a mode to sign the ordinance without seeking counsel and advice from legal luminaries. By then, Delhi was awash with loud whispers of how legal luminaries consulted by Pranab Mukherjee had told the President that there was every chance of the Supreme Court declaring the ordinance as unconstitutional and illegal. Quite clearly, having taken the risk of making an 'independent' Pranab Mukherjee as the President in place of the ever compliant Pratibha Patil, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to embarrass and antagonize Pranabda over the ordinance issue, particularly when it is known that this President will play a crucial role in 2014 if the Indian electorate delivers a hopelessly hung verdict. In fact, Congress leaders openly admit in off the record discussions that the only reason Pratibha Patil was made the President in 2007 was the fact that the Congress wanted a friendly presence in the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2009 after the Lok Sabha elections. It is a different matter that the Congress led UPA won a decisive mandate in 2009 and there was no need really to fall upon the family loyalty of Pratibha Patil.

It is not just the controversial ordinance issue over which this President has demonstrated that he is not a rubber stamp and will not hesitate to speak out the concerns felt by ordinary Indians even if it embarrasses the Prime Minister and the government. When Rahul Gandhi dropped his ordinance is nonsense bombshell on the nation, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was in New York meeting world leaders on the sidelines of a United Nations summit. His proposed meeting with the Pakistan Prime  Minister Nawaj Sharif had already triggered a lot of controversy in India. Many political analysts, opposition leaders and even Congressmen were of the view that Dr Singh was bending over backwards to accommodate Pakistan in his quest for a 'peace legacy' and was not being tough enough with the neighbour when it came to Pakistan's continuing role in encouraging terrorism and terrorists targeting India. The reported remark by the Pakistan Prime Minister calling Dr Singh a "dehati aurat" triggered even more controversy and anger. In the event, Dr Singh appeared his weak and ineffectual self even though he made the right noises about Pakistan sponsored terrorism. Within a few days of this controversy, Pranab Mukherjee embarked on a scheduled state visit to Belgium and Turkey. And it is in Belgium that Pranab Mukherjee minced no words while accusing Pakistan of duplicity and worse when it comes to terrorism. Durning the course of an interview in Belgium, Pranab Mukherjee was categorical when he said:  "Terrorist activities must be curbed. And state-sponsored terrorism can never be accepted. Therefore, repeatedly, we are saying, please dismantle the terrorist outfits which are located in your area". When he was asked about the Pakistani claim that non state actors were responsible for terrorist activities against India, the President responded by saying: "It may not be. But non-state actors, that is the phrase they used, then I responded by saying that non-state actors are not coming from heaven. Non-state actors are coming from territory under your control...And not now, in 2004 Pakistan agreed that their territories will not be allowed to be used by forces inimical to India".

People who sympathize with Dr Singh say that the President now has nothing left to lose in the political arena and can afford to say things that appeal to popular sentiment in the country while the Prime Minister has to do a perpetual tightrope walk. But even they admit that if Pranab Mukherjee had remained Foreign Minister, he would not have committed the blunder committed by Dr Singh during the Sharm-El-Shaikh summit in 2009 when he virtually agreed to the Pakistani contention that India has been playing a role in fomenting trouble in the troubled Balochistan province of Pakistan. That gesture by Dr Singh continues to haunt India as Pakistan spares no occasion to raise the issue in international fora.

That Pranabda has a mind of his own and is not afraid to embarrass Dr Singh or the UPA government if need be has been evident from many other acts. The Congress government in Haryana has acquired a notorious reputation for selectively targeting and victimizing honest bureaucrats who blow the lid of scams involving powerful people. The most prominent example of this is Ashok Khemka who is being allegedly harassed and persecuted for exposing dubious land deals of Robert Vadra, the son in law of Sonia Gandhi. A lesser known case is that of another bureaucrat Sanjiv Chaturvedi who exposed a forest plantation scam back in 2009 in Haryana. Hounded and persecuted by the government, Chaturvedi sought refuge by coming to Delhi on a deputation and currently works as the Chief Vigilance Officer at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. In 2012, he was charge sheeted by the Haryana government over seemingly dubious reasons. In the first week of October, 2013, the President completely dismissed and quashed the charges against the whistleblower Chaturvedi as not "sustainable". Though the Hooda government of Haryana played down the issue, it was a clear slap inflicted by Pranabda on the UPA regime.

The August 15 Red Fort speech delivered by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was much talked about not because of the oratorical skills of Dr Singh but because the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi delivered a stinging counter speech of his own on the same day and publicly trashed both Dr Singh and his typically tepid speech. In all this tamasha, most Indians did not pay attention to the speech delivered by Pranab Mukherjee on the eve of the Independence Day. While the Dr Singh speech was full of homilies and worse and that of Modi was expectedly bombastic, it was the speech delivered by Pranabda on August 14 that genuinely reflected the anger and anguish of Indian citizens. He said: " Fellow citizens: Institutions are a mirror of national character.  Today we see widespread cynicism and disillusionment with the governance and functioning of institutions   in our country.  Our legislatures look more like combat arenas,   rather than fora that legislate.  Corruption has become a major challenge.  The precious resources of the nation are being wasted through indolence and indifference.  It is sapping   the dynamism of our society.  We need to correct this regression." Read carefully and it looks as if it was someone like Anna Hazare speaking to people. Incidentally, there was barely a mention of corruption in the speech delivered by Dr Singh.

Yet another way in which this President has eliminated the timidity and waffling of his predecessor Pratibha Patil is the manner in which he handled the mercy petitions of death row inmates Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab. Afzal Guru was an accused in the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and his death penalty was hanging fire since Abdul Kalam was the President of India. In early 2013, Pranabda rejected his mercy petition and Guru was executed. Pranabda acted even more swiftly in the case of the 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab. His mercy petition was rejected by the President within weeks of receiving it. Sure, it is the government of the day that ultimately advised the President on the issue. But public discourse is clear: the President acted decisively when Indians wanted to send a strong and unambiguous message against terrorism and terrorists.

In just about a year, Pranabda has acted in a manner that has caused worry and discomfort to die hard Congress loyalists. Many of them are worried about what will happen in the aftermath of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Will Pranabda, a lifelong Congressman, stick his constitutional neck out to help the Gandhi family and the Congress if the elections deliver an ambiguous verdict without a clear winner? Or will he prove to be as independent as his admirers think he is? Some, like noted journalist Ram Bahadur Rai (see column) say that Sonia Gandhi ensures that both Rahul and Priyanka make it a point to regularly meet the President, often on consecutive days. But will that influence the mind of the President come 2014? We don't know the answer. But Pranabda has already shown he can be the X factor of Indian politics in 2014. And he has restored much of the dignity to his office lost during the tenure of his predecessor. We will never know if he would have made a good Prime Minister. But he is trying really hard to become a great President.


Pranab Mukherjee is quite unlike any of our former Presidents. He is certainly no rubber stamp like Pratibha Patil quite simply because unlike Patil who was a local politician, Mukherjee has been a part of national politics since 1967. His problem solving skills are well known and have been summoned many a times by the government. His prime ministerial ambitions are no secret either, and had the coterie not rushed to install Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the party’s Parliamentary board would have, in all likeness, decided differently and settled on Mukherjee’s name.

He has also had his rebellious phase when he formed the Loktantrik Congress Party, thus reaching out to politicians away from the Congress fold. Even otherwise, he has shared close relations with leaders across party lines, and is in direct touch with many old timers and activists who are trying to change the way politics is done.  That gives Mukherjee unparalleled stature in the politics of the day.

Unlike Giani Zail Singh who was known to be impatient, Mukherjee is a deliberate, patient mover.

His stance on the ordinance on convicted politicians is a clear example of his ability to use his position and nudge the government in a direction he wants. He might have denied LK Advani’s claim of him, and not Rahul Gandhi, being the reason behind the withdrawal of the ordinance, but his hand was evident.

Few people know that Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi meet the President every day, even if just for five minutes. Clearly they do so on their mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s instructions. She knows that Mukherjee needs to be kept close, and direct communication with him is essential.

The perception that our Constitution permits only a rubber stamp President is incorrect. The President occupies a unique position, as he is the custodian of the Constitution. This is quite unlike the Prime Minister and the ministers who have to follow the Constitution. This distinction is also marked in the oaths that the President and the Prime minister take. The President promises to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”, while the PM and his colleagues swear to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India”. By virtue of being tasked with protecting the Constitution, the President has a role unlike that of any other executive functionary.

The ‘rubber stamp’ perception was born during the tenure of the first President Rajendra Prasad who shared a close relationship with Jawahar Lal Nehru and  hence approved every decision of the government. But then, those were different times.

Mukherjee has good relations with the country’s top most Constitutional and legal experts. He has been advised to use his powers most effectively. Consequently the decisions he has taken have been without any pressure from the government.

I do believe that Mukherjee will be an activist President. He has already earned popularity among different political parties in the span of his long political career. Hence, it is not difficult to believe that he will be elected President even after there is a regime change at the Centre.

The Congress has tried to exercise some measure of control on him. Finance minister P Chidambaram’s statement that it was his predecessor (Mukherjee) and not he who was responsible for the country’s less than healthy financial condition was one of those indirect efforts.

But so far Mukherjee has shown himself to be undeterred by such pressure.

As far as this government is concerned, the President clearly has the upper hand

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017