Should the President have supported the Emergency? And Bofors?
Should the President of India speak on controversial political issues?
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 prerogative 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 fundamental rights were suspended. The government was run by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, and extra-constitutional authority.
Yet, the critics let Pranab Mukherjee off the hook because of the office he occupies. However, his latest statement is unfortunate. He says that the Bofors gun scandal was a figment of Indian media’s imagination. Having known all about the scandals, how could Pranab Mukherjee make such an irresponsible statement?
That Mukherjee was a loyal functionary of late Prime Minister 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 guns 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 crore but turned out to be in the neighbourhood of Rs. 3,000 crore.
No doubt, Pranab Mukherjee finds politics a familiar turf but he left it when he was elected 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 the key role he had 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 realized the mood and announced that he would not contest the 2014 election. Sonia readily agreed the position because he had himself cleared the deck for Rahul Gandhi.
Nevertheless, since his election as 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 have characterized 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 realized it later—that Mrs Sonia Gandhi wanted to rule herself but feared to do so lest her Italian nationality should jeopardize 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 the behind. He had no group, all by himself, and would be dependent on her to continue as Prime Minister.
No doubt, Sonia ruled the country through him for 10 years. It was a strange spectacle of power without 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 they have 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 Prime Ministers pay scant attention to Presidents. The constitution framers, who preferred parliamentary democracy to 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 the 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.