Pranab Mukherjee quietly builds legacy as statesman6 min read . Updated: 25 Jul 2016, 11:30 AM IST
Forthright views are seen as President Pranab Mukherjee's hallmark as the veteran leader gets ready for a fifth year at Rashtrapati Bhavan
New Delhi: Pranab Mukherjee, India’s 13th President, will complete four years in office on Monday.
Analysts say Mukherjee has largely been an effective President, who has conducted himself in a statesmanly manner.
Sworn in President on 25 July 2012, Mukherjee was till then a senior member of the Congress party and had held various portfolios in government like minister for commerce, finance, defence and external affairs besides the deputy chairman of the erstwhile Planning Commission. He was seen as someone the Congress party could rely on in case the 2014 national polls threw up an indecisive verdict.
As it happened, the 2014 general election gave a decisive verdict in favour of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which, along with its allies, went on to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. This was the first time in three decades that a general election had given a two-thirds majority to a single party.
“I would describe him as a statesman-president," said Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice chancellor of Bengaluru-based Jain University. “One of Mukherjee’s successes, I would say, is that he has maintained the dignity of office of the president including during the shift in power," said Shastri, referring to the transition in government in May 2014 when Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) lost power.
Shastri’s comments were echoed by Balveer Arora, former head of the Centre of Political Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, who said that Mukherjee had acquitted himself well with the power transition.
Also noteworthy was the fact that the President has spoken his mind on many occasions which have, at times, appeared critical of the central government, said Abhay Kumar Dubey, associate professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
The themes in many of his speeches have referred to the problems of the day—corruption, aspirations of the youth, the need for probity in public life, issues related to governance and the functioning of Parliament.
A case in point was his customary speech on the eve of 26 January 2013, when the UPA government was in power.
“We are on the cusp of another generational change; the youth of India spread across villages and towns, are in the vanguard of change... They are today troubled by a range of existential doubts. Does the system offer due reward for merit? Have the powerful lost their dharma in pursuit of greed? Has corruption overtaken morality in public life? Does our legislature reflect emerging India or does it need radical reforms? These doubts have to be set at rest. Elected representatives must win back the confidence of the people," the President said.
These comments came at a time when the UPA government was confronting a seeming crisis of faith, being mired in a series of scandals like the ₹ 1.8 trillion coal block auction scam and the ₹ 1.7 trillion 2G spectrum allocation scam. As allegations of corruption mounted, the government appeared to be in a state of policy paralysis. Adding to its woes was a slowdown in the global economy that depressed India’s economic growth.
Corruption as a theme was revisited by Mukherjee in his speech on 25 January 2014, just months ahead of the general election. “Corruption is a cancer that erodes democracy, and weakens the foundations of our state. If Indians are enraged, it is because they are witnessing corruption and waste of national resources. If governments do not remove these flaws, voters will remove governments," the President said in comments that seemed to serve as a portent for the future.
According to Arora, these instances mark the transition of Mukherjee from a Congress leader to President of India, “where he took the liberty to advise the government of the day." “He spoke frankly and reminded the government of the day of its obligations," Arora said, adding this was something that has continued even after the change in government.
Shastri agreed that Mukherjee had been forthright in his views, pointing to the President’s comments on inclusivity that followed the lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh last year after rumours that he allegedly had stored and consumed beef.
“We cannot allow the core values of our civilisation to be wasted... Over the years, this civilisation has celebrated diversity, promoted and advocated tolerance, enjoyed plurality," the President said in remarks at a book launch ceremony at his official residence Rashtrapati Bhavan in October, weeks after the lynching.
“This shows that within the domain of the influence that he wields" as President, Mukherjee has not hesitated to exercise that influence, Shastri said, recalling that Modi had quoted Mukherjee’s comments at an election rally in Bihar in November.
Another instance of the President seemingly cautioning the NDA government was on the frequent issuance of ordinances last January. Addressing students, Mukherjee said Parliament was “the platform where through debate and deliberations, this ‘will’ and ‘aspirations’ have to be prioritized and translated into laws, policies and concrete programmes of action."
A legislature was effective “only if it is able to address the differences amongst stakeholders and succeeds in building a consensus for the law to be enacted and enforced," he said in the backdrop of the centre issuing eight ordinances in the space of as many months because of its lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha that was required to push through laws.
According to Dubey, Mukherjee’s clear views on issues like corruption, inclusivity and tolerance could well have become his legacy and depicted him as a President of independent judgement had it not been for two instances.
One was giving assent to President’s rule in Uttarakhand in March, a decision that was overturned by the court, which restored the state government in May. The second was a similar case in January when President’s rule was recommended in Arunachal Pradesh. In July, the Supreme Court restored the state government.
“On the one hand, Mukherjee is credited with raising the right issues that resonated with the public but on the other hand, on matters like the imposition of president’s rule, Mukherjee did not show the same consistency," Dubey said. He could have been labelled an “outstanding" President had he not imposed President’s rule in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, but these two instances have tarred his term in office, Dubey said.
Arora was of the view that Mukherjee was perhaps “overcautious" or “over-reticent" about not playing an adversarial role given that he was a member of the Congress party before becoming President.
This reservation, however, did not stand in the way of K.R. Narayanan, Arora said, noting that in 1998, the former President had sent back a recommendation of President’s rule in Bihar for reconsideration to the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. President’s rule was imposed in Bihar in 1999 when the recommendation was sent back to Narayanan.
Also interesting was the fact that Mukherjee rejected the mercy petitions of almost three dozen death-row prisoners. This is in contrast to three of his predecessors who together rejected mercy petitions of six death-row convicts.
“It is evident that Pranab Mukherjee does not subscribe to the strategy or reading of the Constitution adopted by his three predecessors," said Anup Surendranath, director of the Centre on the Death Penalty at National Law University in New Delhi.
“While the President cannot take a decision contrary to that of advice of the Council of Ministers, the President can choose not to take a decision (on rejecting mercy petitions)," he added.
With Mukherjee beginning his fifth and final year in office this week, the inevitable question of whether he may seek a second term in office had cropped up. But analysts seemed certain that Mukherjee was unlikely to be nominated for a second term. “The BJP has so many candidates of its own; why would the party look at giving Mukherjee a second term?" asked Arora.
Shreeja Sen contributed to this story.