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Friday, June 29, 2012

PM for Prez

Do I wish to see Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan? Most definitely I do.

First of all, it will be the crowning glory of a long and distinguished career – chequered, yes, but most of it at the very highest echelons of government. He is truly one man who’s been there and done it all. Born in a politically involved but humble family in a remote village in one of the most backward districts of Bengal and beginning his career as a government clerk, he was already being called the second most powerful person in India at the start of the 1980s, before I went to college, when he was Indira Gandhi’s finance minister and winning accolades from all over the world; now I am pushing fifty, and he is still right there (actually was till June 26, 2012), commanding (at least grudging-) respect across the political spectrum as both an astute, suave fixer and a very able strategist cum administrator. As one trained in economics and one who has followed him on TV and the papers without a break for nearly thirty years, I can vouch that his grasp of economic affairs national and global is little short of legendary; the word encyclopedic can be used to describe his tip-of-the-fingers knowledge with total aptness. He has been the UPA government’s man for all seasons for nearly a decade now; there have been few serious problems under the scanner of either the Union Cabinet or the Congress Working Committee which he has not been asked to look into personally when all else had failed. The man’s sheer appetite for work takes my breath away – he travels more in a month, and not for fun, than I have travelled in the last ten years. And while looking after the highest affairs of state 24/7, he still somehow finds time to look after his extended family and its gods, and to read good books (among a thousand feathers in his cap, he is the current President of the Nikkhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan). And – knowing how much muck one must wade through if one merely becomes the head of a neighbourhood puja committee or party unit in this country – I find it well nigh unbelievable how he has kept his nose more or less clean all through these decades, to the extent that accusations of corruption have never risen beyond rare and stray murmurs, and not one serious case has ever been brought to court against him, leave alone won, though he must have made a thousand enemies among the highest and mightiest in the land and beyond, apart from making millions just plain jealous: any person who wields such enormous power has to. By now we know and he knows that the ultimate prize will forever elude him – the Gandhi family will never let him be prime minister – and he’s getting a bit long in the tooth anyway; 77 is pretty old even for a politician! So why not fade out in a blaze of glory, occupying what is the highest, even if almost purely ornamental office in the land? If you call that being ‘kicked upstairs’, how much sweeter can it get? (charming thought: there was a time when Manmohan Singh, as governor of the Reserve Bank, rose before him and called him ‘Sir’, he being finance minister and close confidant of the PM; it couldn’t have been easy to swallow his pride and tolerate the role reversal with him in the FM’s seat and Singh in the PM’s, and so it would be nice again to have Singh-ji rise for him in the dusk of his career…).

Secondly, if the Prez’s job is all about symbolism and tokenism too, why not a Bengali? We have had Muslim and Sikh and Dalit and woman and men from down south more than once; nothing wrong in saying it’s our turn now. Nothing wrong in claiming something for Bengali pride, is there? We have precious little to crow about anyway. Not since Subhas Bose left the stage have we had a fighting chance of being at the helm of this country; not since Jyoti Basu (and he was a very old man by then) has any Bengali in independent India come close to the hot seat in South Block. So at least let’s settle for the President’s post, for now? And if it’s going to be a Bengali, how many candidates more eligible than Pranab Mukherjee can we think of putting up, all things considered?

Finally, our Constitution, as some people have demonstrated (T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner, to name just one), has strange things hidden away in its voluminous bulk, obscure laws and bye-laws and grey areas which a wily, determined and vastly experienced man can take advantage of to make a substantial something out of what has hitherto been regarded as a powerless and/or ornamental post. Who better than Mr. Mukherjee to do that with the office of the President, so that the next PM and cabinet may find out, either with alarm or delight, that they have an assertive and activist head of state to reckon with?

No, Mr. Mukherjee is not even a distant relative, I have never met him personally, and I didn’t take part in the yagna they arranged in his native village to facilitate his accession. But I shall be glad to see him raising the flag next Republic Day. India could do worse.


Debotosh Chatterjee said...

Sir ,
Though the imminent appointment of Pranab Maukherjee as the next President of our nation is a win-win situation for the Bengalees , there have been floating rumours that the Congress has taken this step as a part of a subtle coup , effected hands in glove with the industrialists' lobby that is in touch with the national party . Some people argue that Mr.Mukherjee's appointment as the President of India has come about because of two main reasons :
1.To wrest the finance ministry away from him and hand it over to the 'industry-friendly' Manmohan Singh. This has purportedly been done to please the class of industrialists who felt that Pranab babu's policies in the ministry had a strong 'anti-industry' tinge in them . The clout of this business class is said to reach the inner sanctums of the Congress party and they see Manmohan ji as a more favourable face in the finance ministry than the outgoing Mukherjee babu, expecting the former to drive the country's sagging economy out of trouble . They argue that Pranab babu was being encumbered with too much of political responsibility and this burden was not helping him solve the economic problems of our nation !
2. It is also argued that the Congress took this step so as to effectively project Rahul Gandhi as the future PM of India , without in any way hurting the senior-most member of the party .
Whether or not the Congress' move pays off is yet to be seen in the future , but we wish our very own Bangalee babu 'all the very best' , as he steps into the Raisina Hills ! :)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, of course I know of those 'explanations', Debotosh: how could you imagine that I am that ill-informed? The purport of my post was that even if they are true, it makes no difference to the fact that, now that Mr. Mukhherjee is close to the end of his innings anyway, and since it is certain that he will neither be given a free hand at the Finance Ministry nor has any chance of becoming PM, he couldn't have a better option than to be shunted off to the President's palace, and we Bengalis, at least, shouldn't crib about it. Meanwhile, I wish both Ms. Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Singh long lives, and my best wishes go to Rahul Gandhi: if he does get into the hot seat, he will be in a position which I don't envy for a moment, and wouldn't accept for a billion dollars!

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

ha ha , yes sir , the last sentence is so true in the Indian context ..

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Some news reports also suggest that this is Congress' way of drawing out an 'Insurance Policy' for 2014 general elections. While 2 years is indeed a long time in Indian politics, it is quite probable that this is a lame duck government and - with the state the main opposition is in - I won't be surprised if we have a Third Front coming it with an outside support from Congress. In such a scenario, a having your man as the Head of State, always helps.
And yes, Gandhi family never trusted Mr. Mukherjee, not just for PM, but not even for Home Ministry - the only key portfolio he has never held.


aranibanerjee said...

This is the highest office that a Bengali will hold after Sabyasachi Mukherjee retired as the Chief Justice of India. It is a well-deserved post especially since Mr Mukherjee was asked to make room for that amateur pilot in 1984.
There are very few professionals in politics--people who treat their job with equanimity and discipline. Mr Mukherjee is one of them. And, he is not a bureaucrat.
As far as the grapevine of he being kicked up goes, I do not believe that the economic policy of a comprador-capitalist country is ever out of bounds for lobbyists and traders. The sloth in demand is because we have no demand generation mechanism at the grassroots. All this apart, let us wait for the real fun--the swearing in. The sing-song Bengali accent will finally be asserted as the Received Pronunciation of Indica.

(Long Live Bengal and Britannica.)
With warm regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Good to see your comment, Arani. I had almost lost hope. I'm glad you agree that on the whole there is nothing for us, especially Bengalis, to complain about if Mr. Mukherjee becomes President. As for that sing-song Bangaali babu accent, you're quite right: despite his incredible exposure to the English-speaking world, he never quite got the hang of it - probably never bothered to! But then, how many Indians could ever speak English like Satyajit Ray anyway? That is no reason why the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan should be forever closed to anybody...

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Suvro always had this thing about Satyajit Ray's English accent and delivery! since our school days. Not unfounded at all.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Ah, good to see you remember this, too, old friend.

You will admit that I don't hold it against every man, either: one does not have to speak good English to be either a good teacher of math or to be President of India. But it gets my goat when I hear so-called English teachers speaking like Lalu Yadav, or smart-ass youngsters with faux Yankee accents and vocabularies good enough only for Facebook claiming that they, too, know 'enough' English to be called educated...

aranibanerjee said...

The one on Pranab-babu's Sing-song accent was in jest. If Lalu can lecture in Harvard, why can't this be put up with? In fact, people in Delhi(especially Punjabi refugees who've made it to Canedda) make fun of it, my blood boils. It will be good for them when they have him as the head of the state. I love the fact that the Sardar-ji will 'report' to him. And, I also beleive that Pranab-babu will redeem his many failings and rise above being a Congressman. Jyoti babu had it in him to be a statesman, but he was blighted by his son and his party. Can this Bengali gentleman rise above that and be a statesman. Will he chide Manmohan for his fallacies? The answer is blowing in the wind.

With warm regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It is very hard to play the statesman in the current murky and unforgiving atmosphere, Arani, especially when one man's statesman is another man's cad. Besides, as I have pointed out, a President's options are strictly limited anyway, unless there's something I don't know or have forgotten. However, I'd still like to see a Bengali on top, even if only ceremonially. And I do think that whether our CM is not supporting PM's candidature as a bargaining ploy or out of petty personal pique, history will not see it as a wise move at all.

Pity that this sort of post attracts comments from so few readers - and none from women at all! Yet it remains a fact that politics, the art of governance, has always been the last refuge of a scoundrel as well as the grandest profession. Funny that far more people should be interested in cricket and fashion and the latest gadgets to play with...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Well, of course the victory was a foregone conclusion - even without Mamata Banerjee's last minute vote. Poorna Sangma and the BJP tried in vain to queer the pitch, and got mud on their faces for their pains. Some people don't know when to fight and when to quit...

So now we have the first Bengali President of the Republic. He has started his innings by saying he will strive to be 'everybody's President', too. He already has an incredible treasure trove of stories to tell his grandchildren; I hope he collects some more as first citizen of the land. God grant him sustained good health and a full tenure.