Book Review : The Presidential Years 2012-2017 By Pranab Mukherjee

This fascinating account of his term as the President of the Indian Republic penned down by Shri Pranab Mukherjee contains 177 pages and 90 photographs is also a narrative of transition from Congress to the BJP led politics, and response of the Indian state to major developments in India and abroad in a language so characteristic of the author- straight forward and clear with no pretension whatsoever.

The author’s dedication of his work to ” Indian democracy, which was responsible for a journey that brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a remote village in Bengal to the chandeliers of Rashtrapati Bhavan'” is indeed a testament to his belief in democracy as a practitioner. This is seen in the introductory chapter as he underscores the “substantial” functions of the President and that the” judiciary must respect the fine line that divides its jurisdiction from those of the government and Parliament.” He makes this point several times in different contexts as emphatically as he stated that the decision to do away with the ” Plan panel” meaning Planning Commission by the Modi government was ” a blunder” in chapter 3.

In fact the first three chapters state the author’s Idea of democratic governance as he bemoans the ” culture of meaningless and institutionalised disruption of sessions of Parliament ” which has robbed the opposition of its moral authority and even legitimacy . His point that democratic governance capable of delivering services to the citizens demands ” civilised dialogue” as central to the decision making process is unexceptionable. Further, being aware of the constitutional position of the President after 42nd Amendment binding the incumbent to accept the recommendations of the Cabinet but also of the inherent moral authority of the office he held, he narrated how his personal intervention made Arvind Kejriwal, the then Chief Minister Delhi see reason and withdraw the “Dharna” to protect the dignity of the office of the CM ,NCT of Delhi. He saw a clear link between the ceremonial and the substantial functions of the highest office and thus appears to be a ” no nonsense” Executive Head of the Republic endowed with the long experience of chairing at times ten or more cabinet committees of the Union Government.

This ” professionalism” was a great quality of the author as he was known to go through every matter thoroughly and took decision only on” due diligence”- a quality in short supply these days. He said candidly that he would not have allowed creation of Telengana only on local political issues. Equally candid is his point that it was not appropriate on the part of the PM Modi to have visited Lahore uninvited to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif . He took utmost care in preparing his speeches and had” never shown it ” before any event to an official” and that his addresses before the Parliament were always the outcomes of consultation between the Prime minister’s office and the President’s Secretariat which ensured that there was never a” controversy “over his speech- a point the author made which speaks volumes of his being a stickler of rules and observance of procedures .

In a way chapters 3 and 4 dealing with what the author called India’s federal spirit and judiciary: its reach and limits are the substantive part of the book stating the author’s perceptions of the Indian state, the role of its judiciary and his own experience as the President of dealing with the states facing spells of the actual or likely” failure of constitutional machinery” as envisaged under Article 356 of the constitution which provides for imposition of the President’s rule. And this took him to the realm of India’s journey to a modern statehood which began with the intervention of Britain and in the affairs of India. Here one is constrained to differ with the author’s views on certain basic facts: as for instance his point that the East India Company was the successor state of the Mughul empire is open to question as the company was only a sort of Managing Agent of the British government and accountable to the British Parliament since the enactment of the Regulating Act 1773 and operating under the Charters of the British crown renewed from time to time such as the Charter Acts 1813 and 1833. The East India company was a trading company incorporated in England and never a state. However, in terms of the Treaty of Allahabad of 1765 the company received grant of Diwani, that is, the power to collect revenue as the agent of the Mughal Ruler of Delhi, Shah Alam in respect of Suba Bangal ,meaning the province of Bengal, which included then Bihar: And this made the company the actual Ruler of Bengal because in India traditionally collection of land land revenue entailed administration of justice as well . This was the first instance of ” privatisation of government” probably any where in the world. The votaries of privatisation in India should bear this fact in mind.

His handling of the issues relating to the exercise of power under Art 356 of the Constitution is masterly as he elucidated the concept as well as the practice of taking over the administration of a state in the event of a “failure of constitutional machinery”, and in particular came down heavily on JP Rajkhowa who was Governor Arunachal Pradesh in 2015-17 for his failure to conduct on the” floor of the House to test the majority or otherwise of a government”. The author argued that the Governors must refrain from politics. However he found nothing wrong in acting on the Centre’s report about the failure of the constitutional machinery as in Uttarakhand nor in amending constitution several times to keep Punjab under the President’s rule for 5 years (1987-92)on grounds of adverse security situation. He took pains to argue that the decisions of the first Janata govt under Morarji Desai in 1977 of dismissing Congress governments in States after the 1977 election to the Lok sabha the Congress lost and the repeat of the same by the Congress under Indira Gandhi when it returned to power in 1980 were violative of the principles of federalism and that he ” had a major argument” with Congress leadership on this issue. The short point that emerges from this chapter is author’s tacit acceptance that India is a quasi federal state with strong unitary features. It is to hide this reality the government of India of the day keeps harping on ” cooperative federalism”.

On the role of judiciary the author seems to be on a sticky wicket as both in chapter 5 dealing with it and earlier, he seems to be in a dilemma as he appeared against judicial over reach though he complimented the judiciary for taking ” cognizance of the grievances of the common man sent through a simple post card and provide justice”. He made his position very clear in the very introductory chapter by stating that” judiciary must respect the fine line that divides its jurisdiction from those of the government and Parliament’. While this is unexceptionable, the point he made at chapter 5 that ” in the name of interpretation, the courts cannot make new laws because enacting laws is the sole prerogative of the legislature” is stretching it a bit too far : Because India inherited and adopted the British” common law jurisprudence” of which” judge made laws” emerging from a court order interpreting a section of law or a principle that is followed by other judges which then becomes the” case law” is integral to the functioning of judiciary and justice delivery system. The collegium system of appointment of judges by a committee of the Supreme court judges is one such instance of a ” judge made law” the author has expressed his” serious reservations” about. Notwithstanding this statement, the author’s real anxiety is about achieving a balance between judiciary and executive – a point he made while stressing the need to expand judicial infrastructure in this chapter.

Chapter 6 dealing with mercy petitions by the President makes interesting reading and reaffirms the author’s unemotional and pragmatic approach to decision making as while noting that ” different Presidents have different approaches”, he disposed of the mercy petitions on the principle that” if the government of the day recommends that a mercy plea should be rejected, then I as the President must not stand in the way”. This is” executive wisdom” as he noted that his immediate predecessors acted in a different manner such as APJ Abdul Kalam didn’t look at the petitions while Pratibha Patil granted clemency to 34 convicts and rejected just 3 mercy petitions. It is the same practical mind that convinced him against abolition of death penalty as he argued that” deterrence is absolutely needed in rarest of rare cases”.

The next three chapters- 7,8,9 dealing with India’s foreign relations and the author’s visits abroad should be seen as a narrative of author’s experience as Foreign Minister , his thoughts on international relations, India’s core strategic interests, policies and prospects. From this broad perspective it is a bit disappointing because he didn’t address adequately the dilemma of diplomacy in the 21st century that major powers face and especially India after China joined WTO in 2001, that is, how to manage disputes with China when latter is also India’s major trading partner . In 2020-21, $86.40 billion was the total size of Sino Indian Trade with a trade deficit of $ 44.02 billion as imports from China-$65.21 billions far exceeded exports of$21.9 Billions to China and this applies to US and European union countries such as Germany as well. This is because Chinese economy is now a crucial part of the” global value chain” that binds advanced economies closely with the Chinese economy.

From this perspective, the author’s coverage of India’s relations with US , US- Pakistan relations in the past decades have only academic interest as in post Pandemic world and especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in end August this year, there has been a sea change in global power game especially in South Asia with the emergence of QUAD- Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with USA, India,Japan and Australia as members to deal with Chinese threat to the South China Sea and the Indo Pacific in general and to ensure what the author called ” uninterrupted trade flows through international sea lanes”. This means a deviation from the earlier policy of not aligning with any camp and a new definition of ” strategic autonomy’.

Also the author could have shared his own assessment of Pakistan’s self created collapsing economy and state sponsored terror which have turned Pakistan into ” a badly governed basket case”. And with Taliban in power in Afghanistan- a country whose GDP of about US$ 21 billions is 35% opium trade,45% foreign aid sharing troubled border with Pakistan, the latter’s hope for a ” strategic depth” has been shattered. Rather it has lost its separate identity as it is seen as” AfPak region” wholly dependent on China and aid from the Middle East. Strange though it might seem, there is a larger than life image of Pakistan in India as no where else in South Asia possibly because of Kashmir, her possession of nuclear weapons ,cricket and North Indians love for Urdu poetry that refuses to give a hard look at Pakistan ; as for instance, her unsustainable population of 23 crores as compared to 2.5 cr in 1947 and growing unsustainably @ 2%plus annually , GDP of only US$263 Billions as compared to US$329 of Bangladesh with a lesser population of 16cr , falling exchange rate which is now 174 rupees to one US$, 42% of people below poverty line and a low industrial base are ignored by the Indian media . Consequently, Pak ability to carry out a serious misadventure in Kashmir is limited.

Infact the Afghan involvement might even bring about its collapse and therefore the implications of impending collapse of Pakistan should be now be a bigger concern for Indian strategic analysts . It is time Pakistan’s larger than life image in India is cut to size and hence the author’s criticism of ” over publicising the surgical strikes in Pak Occupied Kashmir” in early 2019 is valid. Equally candid is his appreciation of our relationships with Nepal, Bhutan Bangladesh which is in tune with the” Neighborhood first policy” of the PM Modi. The author took pains to analyse the importance of relations with Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh in view of the Chinese interest in gaining access to the Bay of Bengal and control over the sea lanes and therefore argued for building mutually beneficial economic and technological convergence with these countries by India .

In all his interactions with heads of States in his travels and especially in Russia ,the author kept these broad strategic objectives in view and complemented the efforts of the government and thus provided a broad review of India’s foreign policy challenges- problems and prospects for the reader. While he was candid in his appreciation of the the PM Modi as he ” was kept informed of the major events with regard to our international relations” he disfavoured any personalized diplomacy as he felt quite rightly that it won’t work in the present era. His comment that ” Mr. Modi plays up personal equations too much” is a clear statement of disapproval.

Yet interestingly, despite the ideological differences , Prime Minister Narendra Modi held Pranab Mukherjee in high regard .  PM Modi’s rich  tribute to Mukherjee after he passed away brought to the fore the great personal rapport both shared . In his series of tweets Modi wrote, India grieves the passing away of Bharat Ratna Shri Pranab Mukherjee. He has left an indelible mark on the development trajectory of our nation. A scholar par excellence, a towering statesman, he was admired across the political spectrum and by all sections of society.

Another tweet  read, During his political career that spanned decades, Shri Pranab Mukherjee made long-lasting contributions in key economic and strategic ministries. He was an outstanding Parliamentarian, always well-prepared, extremely articulate as well as witty.

Another tweet  in the rich tribute was , As India’s President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee made Rashtrapati Bhavan even more accessible to common citizens. He made the President’s house a centre of learning, innovation, culture, science and literature. His wise counsel on key policy matters will never be forgotten by me.

And perhaps the most telling tweet was the one in which he he wrote, I was new to Delhi in 2014. From Day 1, I was blessed to have the guidance, support and blessings of Shri Pranab Mukherjee. I will always cherish my interactions with him. Condolences to his family, friends, admirers and supporters across India. Om Shanti.

Another instance when the respectable bond between the two stalwarts was visible, was when Mukherjee posted PM Modi’s letter written to him a day before he demitted office. The letter read “…Three years ago, I came to New Delhi as an outsider. The task before me was huge and challenging. In these times, you have always been a father figure and a mentor to me. Your wisdom, guidance and personal warmth have given me greater confidence and strength.” Mukherjee shared the latter on his social media and said it touched his heart.

The account of author’s visits in and out of the country and interactions with Leaders, Heads of State and governments bear stamp of his long innings in the government of India in charge of crucial Finance and External affairs ministries and Planning Commission which he had put ? to good use to improve India’s relations with the countries he visited especially the US Russia and countries in our neighborhood by ” reiterating the stand taken by the government of the day” as the guardian of the state and the constitution.

The title of chapter 10 Path breaking decisions – Story of Demonetization and GST is most appropriate and the author is seen at his best- forthright and honest to his belief. He mentioned that he was not consulted by the PM Modi before announcing the decision to demonetise high value currency though he was apprised later by the PM and he has put it down bluntly that the objectives of demonetization were not achieved by the government. He however complimented the Modi government for successfully introducing Goods and Services Tax which he as the Finance Minister did all the ground work necessary to put GST in place under the long spell of previous Congress government (2004-14) which is in a way natural because in a democracy there is always a continuity and never a break.

However the author was clearly unhappy with what he called a ” pattern” of decision making under the Modi government ; that is , instead of cabinet deliberating and deciding on a major policy matter collectively as per the norms of a parliamentary democracy of the West Minister model, the current dispensation introduced a pattern ” where most of the decisions were taken by the Prime minister’s office in consultation with the departmental heads and Secretaries concerned”. Though he clarified that such practices were also adopted by governments under Mrs. Indira Gandhi, his views are clear- these are aberrations and better avoided to ensure continuity of cabinet system of collective responsibility as envisaged under the Parliamentary form of government. On the whole his relationships with the Prime ministers during his tenure were appropriate and cordial enabling him to uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and the dignity of the office of the President of India.

In this backdrop the last chapter- epilogue President Mukherjee is at his best as he tells us how he tried to convert the grand colonial palace- the Viceregal Lodge, a seat of power into a People’s house, a knowledge hub as he made the rich collection of the library accessible to researchers and its famous Moghul gardens to the visitors. Rooted to the soil and spirit of rural Bengal, Pranab Mukherjee was indeed a people’s President of the Republic and would be remembered for upholding the constitutional morality and democratic values enshrined in the constitution.

The chief merit of the book is that it reads so well and its style and presentation of facts and issues are such that a layman could easily grasp and appreciate the core issues of governance , centre state relations, the role of judiciary, conduct of foreign affairs and strategic issues involved the rein. And this makes it a “must read” for all preparing for UPSC civil service examination as they could get an insight into how the state functions and how policies are made or should be made in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. The album of 90 photographs is integral part of the book and “must see ” for the reader as it would give an idea how the author conducted himself with dignity at home and abroad. The Presidential Years will remain a guide book for the future occupants of the Rashtrapati Bhavan’.

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