Veteran Congress party leader Pranab Mukherjee’s tenure as President of India comes to an end this month, quite possibly marking the winding down of a vaunted tradition in Indian politics—the president who speaks his mind, without fear or favour.
Short in stature and soft of voice, Mukherjee has been an unlikely giant on the Indian political stage. ‘The best Prime Minister India never had’ is a headliner’s favourite. Yet, we don’t know for certain if the man who began life as a lecturer in political science (he read political science, history and law in university) ever thought he could have a realistic shot at becoming Prime Minister from the ranks of dynastic Congress. The first of possible two chances came after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984. As finance minister, he was No. 2 in her cabinet. However, according to her secretary P.C. Alexander, Mukherjee readily agreed when Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi was mentioned as a consensus choice, rejecting suggestions that Mukherjee himself take over as interim premier. Rumours to the contrary, said Alexander, were spread by Mukherjee’s rivals in the Congress.
The other missed occasion came in 2004, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi selected Manmohan Singh rather than Mukherjee. “The selection of Dr Manmohan Singh over Pranab Mukherjee (then the seniormost Congress leader) came as a surprise not only to the Congress but also to outsiders," wrote former foreign minister Salman Khurshid in his autobiography. “In retrospect, many argue that the Congress might have averted the 2014 Lok Sabha election outcome if the choice had been otherwise or even if we had changed horses midstream," when the Manmohan Singh-led government was mired in corruption scandals.
All of this means that by the time Mukherjee was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2012, he had a perfectly formed political mind. It was based on his experience as the Congress party’s ‘Mr Organiser’, which meant creating political consensus, sticking to the rule book, gauging the ground reality, knowing when to step back, when to keep his counsel, when to speak his mind in private and—crucially—when to make it public. It’s the last two that are a pre-eminent requisite in India to be a good President. The framers of the Indian Constitution modelled the Indian President on the British monarch but gave the office more powers than are enjoyed by the British counterpart. Mukherjee, the quintessential Brahmin, academically minded bhadrakalok (Bengali term for genteel bourgeois), played by this rule book.
Fully aware of the pro-Hindu political colour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and of the legislative challenges presented by an upper House dominated by the opposition, the President made several noteworthy public interventions—without once over-stepping the boundaries drawn by the Constitution. The President made his views known quite forcefully on three issues in particular—on the need to respect Parliamentary best practice; the overarching importance of secularism and diversity; and the importance of respecting free press and dissent. Equally, after disruptions held back legislative business, he lectured the opposition on the need to allow Parliament to do its work. These are some of the things he said:
On rule by ordinance:
“Enacting laws without discussion impacts the law-making role of the Parliament. It breaches the trust reposed in it by people. This is neither good for democracy nor for policies relating to those laws," Mukherjee said in his address to the nation on the eve of the 66th Republic Day, by when the Narendra Modi government had already passed 11 ordinances in the face of a disruptive opposition.
On the need for allowing debate in Parliament:
“There can be no governance without a functioning legislature. The legislature reflects the will of the people. It is the platform where progressive legislation using civilized dialogue must create delivery mechanisms for realizing the aspirations of the people. It calls for reconciling the differences among stakeholders and building a consensus for the law to be enacted."
On the need to respect secularism and diversity:
“The idea of secularism is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of our nation. It has to be further strengthened in the minds of the young ones to build a harmonious society," he said in January 2016.
“It mesmerises me when I shut my eyes and think that in our country 1.3 billion people who are using more than 100 languages, practising 7 major religions, belonging to 3 major ethnic groups are residing under one system, one flag and one identity of being Indian. That is the celebration of our diversity," he said this year.
On the value of dissent:
“Discussion, dissension are crucial to public debate for decision-making in a vibrant, healthy democracy such as India’s. There should always be room for the argumentative Indian but not for the intolerant Indian."
He lectured journalists, too:
“Media must learn the art of withstanding pulls and pressures without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage and always remain on guard against conformity."
A Delhi-based man who has known Mukherjee well for decades, told me that unlike some previous presidents, Mukherjee was never going to be a “rubber stamp president".
“He has called the service chief over Jammu and Kashmir—even Modi. But he has never allowed his opinion to leak out. He has told me several times that for him, being the President is not an image building exercise, that ‘building events’ doesn’t serve democracy."
PM Modi has spoken fondly of Mukherjee, recalling how Mukherjee treated him, a newbie in New Delhi, just like a son, handholding him and enquiring after his health.
In one of his last public remarks before he demits office later in July, Mukherjee said (referring to himself in the third person), “There has been the divergence of views but the two kept those to themselves and acted in close cooperation. It did not affect the relationship between the president and the prime minister, between the titular head and the actual head of the administration."
There was one matter on which Mukherjee was uncompromisingly critical, incandescent even—the 1991 destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by leaders of BJP and pro-Hindutva groups. In the second volume of his autobiography published in 2016, Mukherjee called the destruction “an act of absolute perfidy, which should make all Indians hang their heads in shame. It was the senseless, wanton destruction of a religious structure, purely to serve political ends".
“It destroyed India’s image as a tolerant, pluralistic nation where all religions coexist in peace and harmony".
These are very strong words from a measured man. With the Ayodhya dispute set to be heard in court in the months to come, they will resound for some time yet.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1