Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Know your next President

by  Udayan Namboodir

Pranab Mukherjee will most certainly restore to Rashtrapati Bhawan its lost respect. Who knows, he may even bequeath a legacy, a high benchmark of conduct for future Heads of State — something he couldn’t do as one of the longest serving Cabinet Ministers of free India.  

For a nation of mostly under-thirty-year-olds, this man is an oddity wrapped in an enigma and presented with a smile. Abstractions like "acceptable”, “trouble-shooter” and “man-of-all-seasons” fly way above the world of Indian politics which Pranab babu was initiated into, struggled to find his feet on, and, of course, stride with aplomb.

A late entrant to politics, Pranab babu had neither political pedigree nor fabulous wealth to lubricate his way up. In the late 1960s, lumpen elements, shepherded by Congress strongman Siddhartha Shankar Ray on the one hand and Communist gangster Pramod Dasgupta on the other, were on the ascendant in West Bengal. It was the worst of times, and also the perfect for the phlegmaticbhadraloke who, in a moment of epiphany, saw that there will always be a niche for a bhalo chhele (goody-goody boy).

The Indira Gandhi-Jyoti Basu friendship and how it helped Pranab babu: Arriving in Delhi as a “Bangla Congress backbencher” in the Rajya Sabha in 1969 in the worst period of Congress-CPM rivalry, Pranab babu saw the wondrous clash of two perspectives, one from Delhi and the other from Calcutta (now Kolkata), of the same political scene. While Congress and CPI(M) goons were breaking each other’s bones and heads, burning houses and bombing buses on Calcutta’s streets, Jyoti Basu and Indira Gandhi maintained their upper class friendship in Delhi.

So unlike his mass leader friends, who swallowed a little of the rhetoric they mouthed, Pranab began to cultivate enemies. It was on Basu’s urging that Indira Gandhi took notice of this diminutive, method-minding Bengali gentleman. Indira used his awesome talent with figures and articulation of historical backdrops to build up a somewhat strange governance paradigm — loyalty and transparency in nothing but sycophancy. He repaid her with unquestioning, often hangdog, loyalty — something for which his envious colleagues got his back in the Rajiv era. Who can deny that it was largely thanks to Pranab babu’s inputs that Indira could build up her second innings post-1977.

And he also looked after Jyoti Basu. Pranab babu crafted the original Janus-faced policy of the Congress insofar as relationship with the CPI(M) went. Today, a lot of Congress leaders in his home state may exult at a Bengali going to Rashtrapati Bhawan, but back in the 1980s, Pranab was their hate object. It was his diplomacy which saved the Communist regimes in Delhi and Trivandrum from critical inquiry.

In 1993, Pranab babu went to see Basu. He was hoping for a Rajya Sabha seat from West Bengal and needed a few cross-votes from the CPI(M) benches. Basu was shocked at the suggestion that a Communist’s loyalty could be traded and told him he was knocking on the wrong door — the CPI(M) would never vote for a Congressman. Five years later, Basu, by then wiser to the ways of his comrades, recalled, “Pranab babu left with a smile but eventually he managed to get what he wanted — you know how!”

Pacific Mukherjee: In this age of metaphorically hanging corrupt politicians from the nearest tree, let’s look at Pranab babu’s record. At first glance, he’s kosher. He lived in the tradition of Bengali politician — mach-bhaat for lunch, dhuti-panjabi for attire, and Ambassador for rides to work. Nobody in his extended family saw their circumstances
improve by scandalous degrees.

That said, nobody but Pranab babu personifies better the institutionalisation of the politician-industrialist axis which is all around us today. Even 21 years of phoney liberalisation has not made any difference to the clout of lobbyists of certain industry houses.  In the post-1977 era, he convinced Indira Gandhi of the need to discard the Tatas, Birlas and Dalmias who had ditched her during the Janata era. 

Congress, under his guidance, built up a new legion of funders who would owe their riches not to Mahatma Gandhi or Panditji, but Indira Gandhi alone.

Pranab babu manipulated the licence-control raj to help a certain Gujarati, Mumbai-based textile maker come to fabulous wealth in record time.

Today, the son of that industrialist is believed to be directly or indirectly controlling at least 20 parliamentarians from diverse parties.

 He made a virtue out of backroom maneuvering.

The “wows” that come today in the wake of multi-party support for his candidature may have a lot to do with the moneybags of Mumbai who would do anything for Pranab babu. It must be said that Pranab Mukerjee’s charisma is a media-manufactured thing, his political life quite bypassed the people he purported to represent.

Many people praise Pranab babu for his “trouble shooting skills”. I don’t. I think he represents the trouble itself and so who’d be better at talking its language? The hollowing out of all high ideals and gradual reduction of Indian democracy to a farce was a process overseen by Pranab babu and his direct patrons in politics and industry. The “trouble” with Indian politics is the centrality of power lust. As the party which has ruled India for 52 of 65 years, Congress cannot evade responsibility for this state of affairs. And, when looking for names to put to faces, Pranab babu’s would be synonymous for the death of principles.

Sum total of anecdotes: Pranab babu, some say, is the best Prime Minister India never had. The same used to be told of Atal Bihari Vajpayee before he got his chance to leave his mark. But Pranab babu never did anything extraordinary as head of the many ministerial innings he’d had. He wrote no landmark laws, just proved to people what a nice guy he was. In diplomacy he performed to the script of the establishment mandarins. In commerce he never challenged the Washington Consensus. As for finance, he presided over, not once but twice, disasters in India’s economic history.

These days, the TV channels are full of reminiscences of old friends and relatives. They bring to life little anecdotes from a rich life. It makes me wonder which Bengali sub-stereotype Pranab babu matches. He’s the antithesis of the Presidency College educated world changer; Mamata Banerjee’s bucolic style is not for him. There’s no precedent for him in the galaxy of Bengali political figures because unlike former greats, Pranab babu never, repeat never, rocked boats.

But at one point in his career, he dared to show his Bengali appetite for a fight. Slighted by Indira Gandhi’s son who dropped him from his first cabinet, Pranab babu walked out to found his own party. As a young reporter I was assigned a few times to cover meetings of his “Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress”. What struck me as strange was that a former teacher of history should overlook how “Rashtriya Samajwadi” translated into English —“National Socialist”, or Nazi!

Maybe he himself realised his gaffe. Anyway, he soon closed down his little party and returned, some say tail-between-the-legs, to the Congress. Others say his industry friends made Rajiv see sense. Under Sonia Gandhi his fortunes improved immensely. Though pressure from the right prevented her from making him Prime Minister, Sonia perhaps recalled the fondness with which her mother-in-law, her own role model, held this Bengali babu.

Political legacy: The office of the President of India is a political one, and last week’s dramatics over finding candidates was the latest iteration of this simple fact. Pranab Mukherjee’s life will be judged eventually as a politician and many would wonder what he took to Rashtrapati Bhawan and left for posterity.

A certain Indian genius, I’d say. Between his beginnings, in a Birbhum hamlet and the present time when he’s at his summit, Pranab babu has proved that the Hindu rate of growth can often take your ambition somewhere.

The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer.

By the kind courtesy ofthe Pioneer.

All photographs depicting various moods of Mr Pranab Mukherjee have been selected from various places on the net.

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