Logic and consistency are not virtues in politics. Changing their response in accordance with the varying tunes of political music is a popular vice with most politicians. Judging from the dialectical response to Pranab Mukherjee’s three-year tenure as finance minister, it is evident that the UPA leadership — including the prime minister — would like to forget his “valuable contribution” to the government. Ever since he demitted office, Pranabda is being dubbed as the destroyer of the India Growth story. Rarely in Indian political history have both Marxists and markets cheered a minister’s exit. In Pranab’s case, elation reigned both in Gopalan Bhavan and Dalal Street.
What is striking is the attempts on part of the Prime Minister’s Office, corporate leaders and promoters of foreign investors to form a coalition of Pranabda baiters. Once they lived in awe of the man who listened to them patiently, but refused to be led by them. Pranabda as finance minister stood his ground with conviction. He followed the concept of collective responsibility of the Cabinet, both in spirit and in law. Now, Congress spokespersons have invented a fancy lexicon to disown his legacy. The articulate Manish Tewari coined a phrase to redefine the principle of collective responsibility; when asked to explain why the PM also shouldn’t share the blame for unpalatable decisions taken by Pranab, he admitted that though it was a matter of collective responsibility, there was also something known as “differentiated responsibility” which held the Prime Minister back from interfering in finance ministry matters.
Nothing could have been more damning for the UPA’s presidential candidate than being held directly responsible for leaving the country in an economic mess. If there weren’t a captive electoral college, P A Sangma wouldn’t need to speak on the intellectual infirmity of his opponent. The backers and the promoters of the new, though temporary, finance minister are doing it in abundance. Instead of being projected as the most ideal and iconic choice for the country’s highest post, Pranabda is being painted with two different brushes. The Prime Minister, in a letter to the former finance minister, said: “We are confident that our country and the people will continue to benefit from your wisdom, knowledge and decades of experience in public life.” Within 24 hours of writing it, the PMO and other babus made official and unofficial comments that left none is doubt that Pranab would be made the scapegoat for an ailing economy. For the Congress and the PMO, the former finance minister was a master of good politics but the villain of bad economics.
The conflict between the PM and his former finance minister has been a matter of speculation so far. But now, when Pranabda is set to become the constitutional head of the country, the current strategy of the powers-that-be to downsize his stature and ability is fraught with dangerous consequences. According to sources close to him, Pranab will not be a pushover President. If he was assertive about his powers as finance minister, he is going to be even firmer while performing his constitutional responsibilities. He enjoys more numerical support from political parties than the UPA and the Prime Minister himself. He may not have had the trappings and authority of a prime minister, but Pranabda always behaved like one for the past eight years. Unlike previous ministers who have been elevated to the Rashtrapati Bhavan— besides being both more experienced as well as a maverick — Pranab is not one of those faceless sycophants who can easily be bulldozed by the Prime Minister. If some ministers or Congress leaders continue to paint Pranab as an incompetent minister, he may carry the ignominy with him to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The relationship between the Prime Minister and the President is so delicate that its continuity depends on respect and full faith in each other. Even the best of political friends like Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad fell out because of ego issues. The Rajiv Gandhi-Zail Singh confrontation almost created a constitutional crisis because Rajiv didn’t give Zail Singh the respect which he expected from the prime minister. Fortunately for Indian democracy, barring the exception of Rajendra Prasad, all previous Presidents have been either outstanding individuals or weak politicians. All of them bowed to the advice and suggestions of prime ministers, who have either been popular leaders or were backed by powerful parties. But Pranabda will be the exception. Not only does he enjoy vast political support cutting across ideological boundaries, he has also been the boss of the current Prime Minister and many others in the government. If Pranab, after moving into the Raisina Hills palace, decides to prove once again that he is the wisest of them all, it will be an ominous signal for the government. It is better to send him to Rashrapati Bhavan as a guide, friend and philosopher of the government, rather than portraying him as good riddance.
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