An individualist president | Kuldip Nayar

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It is not difficult to assess the regime of Pranab Mukherjee who retires from the office of president after completing tenure of five years. He was a wrong choice and should not have adorned the gaddi at the first instance.

Pranab, man Friday of Sanjay Gandhi, was an extra constitutional authority who ruled the country during the emergency. It was a dictatorial rule by then prime minister Indira Gandhi who had even suspended fundamental rights. Pranab was then the commerce minister, who granted or stopped licences at the bidding of Sanjay. The very rule was an insult to the democratic nation. Pranab who had violated the constitution by occupying the position, cannot but be condemned for the days he ruled.

When Sonia Gandhi elevated Pranab to the office, she was criticised. But hers was a gift to a loyal person who even said day was night if she said so. He himself should assess the achievements and find whether he came up to the expectations he had aroused.
I have gone through the period when he was at Rashtrapati Bhavan and I find, to my horror, that it was a rule which had a negative impact. If he had been a sensitive person, he would have felt the wrongs done during the 17 months of emergency. If nothing else he could have at least regretted the imposition of the emergency when one lakh people were detained without trial, the press was ‘disciplined’ and the civil servants lost the distinction between right and wrong. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader LK Advani was correct to chide the press: “You were asked to bend but you began to crawl.” Sonia appointed Pranab because he had served the dynasty faithfully. People rightly defeated him and Indira Gandhi when the elections were held. Not only was she defeated in the polls held after the relaxation of emergency but the Congress was ousted locks, stock and barrel. The people took revenge.

Pranab’s appointment was a slap on the face of the nation. Never have people supported a dictator nor have they honoured any person who has violated the ethos of independence, democracy and secularism. In this case, even the constitution was flouted. I expect that after some years, Pranab would himself recall the period when he was the president. And he would feel that he could have done better. He should be able to spot at least one instance when he upheld democracy and pluralism. This would have been fair to the people, who ousted the British to have their own rule through the ballot box. I am sure that if and when Pranab writes his memoir, he would be frank enough to list his failings. Seldom have people felt as let down as they did during his presidency.

Had there been a Lokpal (ombudsman) he would have pointed out where Pranab failed. Alas, there is no such institution. The BJP, which talks about values at the drop of a hat, should assemble an institution that is above politics to say what is right and what is wrong, moral or immoral.

Pranab, even though late, should say from the Rashtrapati Bhavan that he and his Congress party were repentant for the emergency they had imposed. This is a taint on the face of the nation and needs to be wiped. What is important is that the democratic nation should get back its ethos debated in the constitutional assembly and incorporated in the constitution.

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 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.

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 Rs64 crore but turned out to be Rs3,000 crore.

Pranab had taken it for granted that the key role he had portrayed as a firefighter during the Congress party’s troubled times 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, Pranab soon realised the mood and announced that he would not contest the 2014 election. Sonia readily agreed the position because he himself had cleared the deck for Rahul.

Pranab, however, should have done something to explain because the Congress party he represented has this blame pending against him. The Congress should itself think about the ways to come clean and explain to the nation why and how the scams like Bofors and Commonwealth Games had come to existence.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2017.