AN electoral college comprising federal MPs and deputies from state assemblies is set to elect India’s new president next month.
The Congress party has fielded former cabinet minister Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate in what may turn out to be a one-horse race. There is no unanimity in the opposition ranks on a challenger though former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma’s name has surfaced in this context or just about.
The Indian president’s post was conceived as largely ceremonial, but it has gained formidable clout in the country’s perennially fractious polity. For example, Atal Behari Vajpayee was allowed to form a government for all of 13 days in 1996 after president Shankar Dayal Sharma chose to invite him over others following inconclusive elections.
Vajpayee’s rightwing party was woefully short of MPs and had little hope of finding support from anyone else. The unlikely prime minister shrewdly resigned without taking a required trust vote but not before setting himself up for another innings not a very long time away.
His brief government, which had no parliamentary sanction but only presidential goodwill, quit after signing a controversial multi-billion dollar deal with America’s beleaguered Enron Corporation. Vajpayee also inserted a politically divisive anti-cow slaughter proposal among other parochial plans into president Sharma’s mandatory address to parliament.
Another occasion when the Indian head of state weighed in for or against a party came when Congress president Sonia Gandhi approached president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to stake her claim as prime minister at the head of a minority coalition. She was refused.
As precedents go, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi preferred to sit in the opposition than be called to form a government in 1989 when his 1984 four-fifths majority was reduced to become the single largest minority in parliament.
It is of course a matter of record that without a pliable president in Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Indira Gandhi might never have succeeded in imposing her 1975-77 emergency rule.
Presidential assent is usually a matter of routine in India’s Westminster-style government, yet in an era of coalition governments India is going through, heads of state can flaunt a mind of their own. This is where Pranab Mukherjee may not be a great choice for Sonia Gandhi in the crucial seat, and she probably knows it.
If anything Mukherjee may turn out to be more akin to Pakistan’s Farooq Leghari who was Benazir Bhutto’s choice as president but became her chief tormentor soon after.
Mr Mukherjee is widely seen as an ambitious and pushy man who endeared himself to Indira Gandhi as a key henchman during her emergency days. Personal ambition cost him dear though when after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination he promptly put his cap in the ring as the senior minister to succeed his slain boss.
The Congress rallied for Rajiv Gandhi, and Mr Mukherjee was sent into political exile for almost an entire five-year term. He clawed his way back and this part of the story is not seriously discussed in India’s corporate media.
With not much of a political base in his home state of West Bengal from where his party had him elected to the Rajya Sabha several times, Mr Mukherjee struck up a politically useful alliance with Mumbai’s business captains. His proximity with Dhirubhai Ambani whose Reliance Industries he helped expand dramatically is recorded in a controversially proscribed book Polyester Prince.
Hamish McDonald, who was India correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review when he researched the book in the 1990s, was interviewed last week by the Outlook magazine about the presidential candidate’s links with the Ambanis. Mukherjee had helped Reliance in many ways. Among them, he said:
“You’ll have to go back to the Isle of Man companies (11 NRI companies were allowed to invest in Reliance) and the mysterious companies called Crocodile Investments and Fiasco Investments, about which Mukherjee kept saying he didn’t know what they were.
“He’s a very able man in his way, has handled a lot of big portfolios — finance, commerce, foreign affairs. He masters the brief very well, and he’s no fool. He and all his other political colleagues thought Dhirubhai and his famous animal spirits is what needed to be unleashed in India. They saw it in the national interest to be helping him along.”
Mukherjee’s difficulties with Rajiv Gandhi were compounded (and perhaps defined) by an ambitious speech the young prime minister delivered to herald the Congress party’s 100th year in 1985. The speech, rumoured to be authored by Mani Shankar Aiyar, took an adversarial view of precisely the business lobbies Mukherjee was courting.
“Our economy owes much to the enterprise of our industrialists. But there are some reputed business and industrial establishments, which shelter battalions of law-breakers and tax evaders.
“We have industrialists untouched by the thrusting spirit of the great risk-takers and innovators. The trader’s instinct for quick profits prevails. They flourish on sick industries. Many have not cared to learn the fundamental lesson that industrialisation springs from the development of indigenous technology, not from dependence on others … Let us not forget that the poor and the unemployed have to sacrifice their development programmes to subsidise inefficient industry.”
What was the outcome of the stunning speech he gave? Rajiv Gandhi landed himself in the Bofors scandal. And who did he summon to bail him out of the mess? Pranab Mukherjee. The veteran Congressman was to feature in another dramatic ‘rescue’ when he led a bold coup against Congress president Sitaram Kesri in 1998 to replace him with Sonia Gandhi.
“The ailing Kesri … did not know that before the 11am meeting, most CWC (Congress Working Committee) members had gathered at Pranab’s home to endorse two crucial statements. The first was an ultimatum asking Kesri to step down; the second, a resolution replacing him with Sonia Gandhi,” records journalist Rasheed Kidwai in his book 24 Akbar Road: A Short History of The People Behind The Fall And Rise of The Congress. And yet there is something to be said about the fact that the Gandhi family never allowed Mukherjee to get as far as the home minister’s portfolio, considered to be the acid test of loyalty and trust.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.