ASCENSION to India’s presidency must be bittersweet for former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. For decades he has craved the elusive sceptre of prime minister. Settling ultimately for the cocoon of the presidency, will he use it as a pulpit for his ambition?
Much drama preceded his anointment. Well aware that Congress Party boss Sonia Gandhi did not approve of his elevation, he sidled up to his partner-in-distress, Manmohan Singh, who himself had barely escaped being sacrificed on the presidential altar.India’s next president and current prime minister clung to each other like errant schoolboys, keeping a safe distance from the imperious Sonia. Smiles, if any, were forced, and when photographers implored Sonia to get into the frame, she moved but an inch, and then summarily dismissed the gathering.
Mukherjee is the last man standing from the Indira Gandhi school of politics. He rose meteorically under her, becoming finance minister in the 1980s, as well as her foremost deputy. His batchmates include previous presidents like the suave R. Venkataraman and the earthy Zail Singh.
It is Zail Singh, though, who transformed the perception of the presidency. Up until becoming president, he was willing to sweep the floor for Indira. As president, he was kept in the dark by her son and PM, Rajiv, a constitutional violation. Burning with resentment, Zail Singh started taking the constitution at face value, and nearly dethroned Rajiv.
Reading the constitution literally can make the president look omnipotent. But the constitution also draws on precedence, which until then had turned the office into a rubber stamp. After Zail Singh, no one would scoff at the presidency. Hung parliaments have further emboldened presidents. Who to appoint PM when no party wins a majority is at their qualified discretion.
Mukherjee’s early success was too much for Indira’s son Rajiv, who banished him for a decade. Mukherjee clawed his way back to power, if never into the sanctum sanctorum of the Gandhi family. This being the key to privilege in the Congress Party, he was denied the premiership in 2004 and consigned to the secondary portfolio of defence.
This time he made sure to stay on the right side of Rajiv’s widow Sonia. Even though Mukherjee was superseded by one-time subordinate Manmohan Singh, he jumped to rescue Sonia and Singh whenever the two fell into India’s political morass. Their combined political experience was less than his, and they were no match for his savvy and outreach.
Upon Congress’ re-election in 2009, Mukherjee regained the finance portfolio. In the three years since, he has proven to be a disappointment. Sonia has always believed that social welfare programmes win elections, while reforms lead to defeat. Since 2004, Congress has not instituted a single major economic reform.
An economy growing at eight per cent bred complacency. Ignoring the global recession, Mukherjee assured even higher growth, while promising to rein in inflation. Collapsing markets in the West finally caught up with him. As scam after monstrous scam tumbled out of Congress’s closet, with the treasury being bled dry, he was stunned at the inaction of his two bosses. As usual, he was handed the hatchet but never the oar.
Fed up, he would make one final bid to escape from the shadows. Once before, in 2007, he had tried to become president, only for Sonia to nip him in the bud. This time round he would give her no excuse. She wanted money for social schemes, he would raise it through foreign direct investment in retail, or retrogressive tax measures on foreign companies. FDI backfired on him because he did not lay the groundwork, but steeped as he is in the dirigiste economy of the 1980s, a free market has never been his cup of tea.
As he departs the government, his erstwhile colleagues are blaming him for India’s faltering economy. Manmohan Singh promises to wave his magic wand of reforms of the early 1990s. He discounts Sonia’s intransigence. Mukherjee’s exit also hastens the possibility of early federal elections, as he has literally held the government together. Expect more empty promises until the government collapses under its own weight.
No political animal as intense as Mukherjee has reached the office. Can a leopard change his spots? Asked if he would miss 24/7 politics, he responded that only the future can tell. He knows that federal elections are nigh. Congress is rudderless, and if it does not arrest its current drift, it will be decimated.
Narendra Modi, a man lionised and despised in equal measure, is tearing apart the opposition BJP. Much of the party’s cadre is in awe, but the leadership trembles. Without Modi as helmsman, the BJP will not win 150 seats in a 550-seater parliament, but with him in charge, it just might. Any hopes of cobbling together a viable coalition would evaporate though.
While Mukherjee has lumped the scorn poured by the Gandhis, he has not forgotten. He owes them no favours. But Modi bagging the largest number of seats in a hung parliament would be a conundrum. How would the volatile Modi react in case of a 26/11-like terrorist strike? Mukherjee would not want to hand the keys to the Ferrari to a rash driver.
Precedence exists for Mukherjee to exercise executive leadership from the presidency. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, a stunned and fragmented national polity rallied around then-president R. Venkataraman to lead a government of national unity. He declined, but Mukherjee is a different kettle of fish.
His route to the presidency has been convoluted, but there could yet be an unexpected twist in his tale. Will a fractured mandate drive him to exercise executive leadership? As he himself admits, time alone will tell.
The writer is a freelance journalist.