No more a rubber stamp: Pranab Mukherjee a titular head whose voice matters outside ceremonial duties

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  • Tuesday, October 15, 2013
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  • Amid criticisms that Mukherjee’s stint as the finance minister had weakened the economy, he maintains, high growth rates were registered under him.
    Source: ET

    NEW DELHI: Pranab Mukherjee, the man who could have been — and by all accounts, wanted to be — prime minister, has decided to be a President with a difference. He is the plain-speaking President, and yet careful to go by the only book that matters to him — the Constitution. Mukherjee is making his voice heard — whether it is on foreign or economic policy, or on a controversial ordinance on convicted lawmakers, or in simply interacting with various state governors through video-conferencing.

    Yet, the expert tightrope walker of Indian politics is cautious not to undercut the parliamentary system of government or the prime minister. Mukherjee, after all, has always championed the parliamentary form, one of his closest aides told ET, as he explained the President's style of functioning.

    Mukherjee in no way wants to be a Giani Zail Singh, the aide insisted. That fits a man who reads the Constitution as a pastime. He used to carry it with him — a small red-bound book. Now, a slim edition has replaced it on his study table.

    When Mukherjee started his innings on the Raisina Hill, he was tentative and nervous, close aides said. "Mukherjee, however, did not waste time. He read up on the various aspects of presidency. And once he settled down, he was a confident man who would give direction on various national issues," said a close companion of Mukherjee.

    There have been two recent instances in which one glimpsed an unusual President: one, Mukherjee's comments on cross-border terror perpetuated by Pakistan, and two, his obvious displeasure with the ordinance on convicted lawmakers. Mukherjee was opposed to the ordinance as he felt that by clearing it he might incur the wrath of the Supreme Court, said an official in the presidential secretariat. Mukherjee's stand on the ordinance was even praised by BJP leader LK Advani.

    ET has also learnt, by talking to several senior establishment figures, that following Rahul Gandhi's comments about the ordinance — he called it "complete nonsense" — the President explained to the Congress vice-president how he should not have appeared to undermine the prime minister. Separately, when Mukherjee met Manmohan Singh, he boosted the prime minister's confidence, said a close presidential aide. As Yashwant Sinha, senior BJP leader and former external affairs minister, says, "Once a political animal, always a political animal."

    Leaders across political parties regularly visit Mukherjee. And he occasionally calls a fellow politician to accompany him on a flight back to the Capital "just to catch up". Mukherjee, as President, has maintained the cordial relations across party lines that he has always enjoyed. A case in point is his recent decision to cut short his Bihar visit ahead of Narendra Modi's rally in the state capital.

    Delhi's power-policy establishment has been closely analysing his comments during recent the presidential trip to Belgium and Turkey. Mukherjee was forthright in questioning Pakistan's intentions. It must have been uncharacteristic for an Indian president to do so, but not so much for Mukherjee. He won't shy away from such issues, said a member of the presidential entourage who's known Mukherjee for a long time. Mukherjee, this person said, has always taken a tough stand on Pakistan. During a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security two years ago, when Mukherjee was a Cabinet minister, he had strongly advisedManmohan Singh against visiting Pakistan on the invitation of the then PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, a senior foreign ministry official recalled.

    Diplomat-turned-JD(U) politician Pavan Varma says Mukherjee's comments on Pakistan were not meant to be controversial. "Firstly, the comments in no way undercut the PM. Secondly, Indian presidents have given occasional interviews. And thirdly, what Mukherjee said was in line with India's stated policy," said Varma, who was press secretary to two presidents.

    Serving and retired diplomats point to Mukherjee's deep interest in external affairs. "He has a special interest in South Asia. To this date, visiting leaders from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan seek his audience," an MEA official, who worked closely with Mukherjee during his stint as foreign minister, told ET.

    Mukherjee visited two countries in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh and Mauritius. In both cases, Mukherjee, unlike his predecessors, opted for public meetings instead of limiting his visit to state dinners and photo-ops of handshakes. The next stop for the President will again be in the neighbourhood — Bhutan — later this year.

    President Mukherjee has refused to be economical when it comes to the Indian economy. Amid criticisms from the North Block that Mukherjee's stint as the finance minister had weakened the country's economy, he was keen to set the record straight. Rebutting the argument that stimulus was responsible for a high fiscal deficit and the depreciation of the rupee, he recently told a news channel, " most other countries we provided stimulus package to ensure that sliding GDP growth leading to unemployment could be arrested". He maintained that the economy registered high growth rates under him.

    During an annual meeting of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce recently, Mukherjee happily wore the hat of an economist and gave prescriptions on how to boost the country's finances. Even as he remains within the ambits of the Constitution, the President is setting precedents. Here's the simplest of things. By reaching out to governors through video-conferencing on a regular basis, he not only ensures that he remains in touch with them but also saves an estimated Rs 50 crore a year — by not insisting on travelling to the states.

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, says it is too early to judge Mukherjee: "The test perhaps is still awaited as it would pan out after the 2014 polls." How President Pranab Mukherjee will discharge his duties if general elections throw up a complicated verdict is something everyone will watch, of course. Expect, a senior aide of the President said, smiling, "a no-nonsense" approach.


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