The main requirement for the President is that the population should feel good about him /her. Over the years, we have had presidents, some of whom have added lustre to their offices and we have had others who have unfortunately debased their offices. My own list of the three worst presidents we have had would include Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Giani Zail Singh and Pratibha Patil for reasons that are only too obvious. Even the not-so- great presidents like Shankar Dayal Sharma have had their moments of glory; the way he stood up to Rao to ensure Sheila Kaul’s resignation from governorship when she was facing corruption charges. Ashoka, in this hard-hitting piece, questions various aspects of the present President, Pranab Mukherjee. His penning two volumes of his memoirs, while still in office, adds to his many lapses, the columnist points out, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
For my own generation, the tyrannical Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi to perpetuate her own rule after having been found guilty of corrupt practices by the Allahabad High Court remains the most traumatic phase we have had to endure. Born post-independence, we grew up listening to the stories of the oppression of the British colonisers and the fortitude that was on display coming from the freedom fighters. We had grown up believing that those atrocities would never be visited upon us. The illusion was cruelly shattered on that fateful day when we learned that even our right to life had been snatched from us and the Indian Constitution that defined our ultimate irony lay suspended. We could not even expect the State to guarantee us our lives.
The State apparatus, never sensitive to people’s needs at the best of times came into operation in its most virulent form. The most detested instrument of the state viz., the police had a heydey. They were completely insulated from any accountability and simply loved it. The ruling dispensation was enjoying the ill-gotten perks of this newly found power. It would be difficult for the current lot to imagine but it was a Kafkaesque nightmare we went through for 18 months – until such time that the dictator fed with misinformation from a sycophantic coterie around her began to entertain notions of her invincibility and declared elections (under the Emergency provisions). And thank goodness for that! By that time thousands had to endure incarceration and indignities were heaped on them. A young Malayali student Rajan suddenly disappeared and there was no solace at all for his grieving mother. The Kerala CM Karunakaran was forced to resign (only to be rehabilitated later by Indira despite his abysmal record on corruption).Thugs, flatterers and bullies ranging from the foul-mouthed Bansi Lal to Dhirendra Brahmachari had a field day. Indira’s younger son behaved no differently to Baby Doc, the son of the Haitian dictator. The Prime Minister had no qualms about perverting the hallowed institution of judiciary, which she did with utmost impunity.
The names of those guilty for the tribulations that were visited upon the population are etched in the memories of those who witnessed the tyranny. And they are to be found the pages of the Shah Commission Report, which Indira ordered to be destroyed. A copy survived and is to be found in the Australian National Library which is where this columnist read it.
Expectedly one finds the names of Sanjay Gandhi, Bansi Lal, Vidya Charan Shukla, and other politicians. Senior civil servants like Kumar Nandan Prasad disgraced themselves shamelessly. There were rotten police officers like Pritam Singh Bhinder, who find a mention. But in this infamous gallery is another name which people tend to have forgotten. The name is that of the current head of our state viz., Pranab Mukherjee.
One necessarily has to exercise a great deal of discretion when writing about a sitting head of state especially so when one feels compelled to be critical and I am conscious of that obligation. I have always believed that the main requirement for the President is that the population should feel good about him /her. Over the years, we have had presidents, some of whom have added luster to their offices and we have had others who have unfortunately debased their offices. My own list of the three worst presidents we have had included Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Giani Zail Singh, and Pratibha Patil for reasons that are only too obvious. Even the not-so- great presidents like Shankar Dayal Sharma have had their moments of glory; the way he stood up to Rao to ensure Sheila Kaul’s resignation from governorship when she was facing corruption charges.
When Pranab Mukherjee was being considered for this position, the institution had been comprehensively ‘Pratibhapatilised’. I recall the media critique portal the Newslaundry attempted to evaluate different presidents by balancing their redeeming features against their perceived flaws. In Pratibha Patil’s case the column for redeeming features was left blank with a note asking the readers to advise them if they could find any redeeming attribute in her. On a personal note, I remember a conversation I had with Vinod Mehta, the editor of Outlook magazine and a fellow Lucknowite, who had been an avid supporter of Patil during her election. Towards the end of her presidency, he was gracious enough to admit that he had erred in his judgement!
It is in this ambiance the presidential contest took place between Pranab and Sangma. Having lived for decades out of India, I must confess I knew little about Sangma. He used to come across as a very personable guy on the television but that to me was insufficient reason to support him. Pranab, on the other hand, had held practically all the great offices of the state except the Home Ministry. He had also run the Planning Commission. He had been defeated twice in his attempt to reach the Lok Sabha but always managed a Rajya Sabha nomination, except during his last sting as a parliamentarian. With this wealth of experience, the choice should have been simple enough – but it was not! (Curiously no one attempted to require Pranab to emulate the standards of two excellent presidents viz., Narayanan and Kalam).
For people who had put up a battle against the Emergency, his propulsion was almost an insult. He in his interviews around that time had claimed that as Indira was re-elected, in 1980, when her successors were found to be incompetent that absolved her from any guilt. I believe Pranab holds a legal qualification. Therefore, a bizarre claim like this – electability should determine guilt or innocence – was not only bizarre but dangerous. Pranab was the beneficiary of the Janata Party’s incompetence, which led to the collapse of the government enabling Indira to return and make sure all the cases were brushed under the carpet. He was an even greater beneficiary of an incumbent president, who was not just completely unequal to the task but decidedly shady with her dealings. People were simply fed up with her performance (or non-performance) and willing to give anyone a chance. Additionally, Pranab always had the trait of shrewdness and built up a very congenial relationship with the Fourth Estate. I know of several leading journalists who were regulars at his tea parties. This ensured that not a single journalist asked him tough questions that were needed to be answered. He was also given mush more exposure than Sangma, who was presented as a candidate, who was just fulfilling a formality. Arnab Goswami in perhaps one of the most serious lapses of his journalistic interrogation even went to the extent of declaring that he would like to visit him ‘when’ he became the president instead of ‘if’. They ended up discussing the close relationship Pranab had with Arnab’s uncle; so much for impartiality! Even more worrying was his assertion to Rajdeep Sardesai that Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had acted honourably. Rajdeep simply let him go despite the sheer absurdity!
His election was a foregone conclusion but I remember there were only two columnists who had expressed concerns about his candidature viz., Ram Jethmalani, in the Guardian, and this columnist in the Newslaundry. Our concerns centred on his very shoddy role during the Emergency.
However, after his election, at least I was prepared to give him a second chance. Sadly though despite the public affability, he continued to disappoint. Comparing him with his predecessor is neither here nor there. Pratibha Patil should not be a measuring yardstick – the country would be in a much poorer state than we think if she is seen to be.
My first problem arose when his son, whose name I had never heard was made an MP. It was claimed that he did have political credentials of his own but at least I had not heard of them. Legally of course there is nothing to prevent a president’s son from contesting elections as an individual. But questions of propriety are bound to emerge as he would be expected to represent a party and the president at least is expected to be impartial.
If that was not enough, his son was allocated the house that Pranab used to inhabit as a cabinet minister, which he was completely un-entitled to. I do not know whether this allocation came at Pranab’s behest but it would be naive to believe that his relationship did not play a part.
Very soon afterward, his son made a disgusting statement on women after the Nirbhaya affair. While he publicly apologised, I know I am not the only one who felt the apology was insincere and just a measure to wriggle out of a situation and the action merited his removal from the parliamentary precincts.
Pranab then penned his memoirs while still a head of state and the book contained numerous political statements and innuendos. As a president, he enjoyed statutory immunity from libel. All his predecessors have refrained from publishing their memoirs until they are at least at the end of their tenure or have already demitted their office for this very reason. Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s autobiography end in 1947 and despite several offers, he refused to oblige publishers for this very reason. I penned a column in The Newsminute expressing my concern over this action of his and cited numerous instances where statesmen have desisted from penning their memoirs while in office – Davis Ben Gurion, Anthony Eden, etc. Pranab went ahead and published a second volume of his memoirs also on the same lines. While the first volume was somewhat circumspect, the second volume was unapologetically hagiographic towards Indira and all her decisions, which must include Emergency. He even attempted to shift the blame to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, a person he clearly disliked. Coming from a sitting president I found it distasteful.
But the worst was yet to come! And it did! At Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, he indulged in a thoroughly unworthy exercise of name calling and maligning a former Chief Justice and a former president Sanjiva Reddy. According to his bizarre logic, Justice K. Subba Rao should not have entered the presidential race after having delivered the Kesavanand Bharati case and ruling that fundamental features of the Constitution could not be changed (as Indira wanted). As bizarre as it gets! And he had problems Sanjiva Reddy entering the presidential race, on the first occasion, because he was too young! Reddy was incidentally proposed by Indira who then campaigned against him and ensured Giri’s victory! The less said about this the better! I do not begrudge anyone holding Indira in high regard but to give a spin like this to obvious failings in my view is distinctly un-president like! He unashamedly justified the detested 42nd Amendment Indira brought to ensure her survival after her conviction, which exposed us to so much anguish and international ignominy; as political as one can get.
Sadly Pranab has only conformed that my reservation were on sound grounds and he never had the makings of a great president let alone being a statesman. His term comes to an end in near future. I would hope the political parties for once can see the wisdom of electing someone who would not be prone to debasing the office any further.
(The views expressed in this column is that of the writer solely).
©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Photos from the internet.
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