‘The Office of the President is an emergency light. It comes on automatically when there is a crisis and goes off automatically when the crisis passes,’ observed former President Ramaswamy Venkataraman in his book ‘My Presidential Years’. Whether present-day Presidents are any longer backup lights is difficult to say. Yet, diaries of past presidents sometimes give explicit account of the years they stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan.That exactly is what this book makes sure of.

‘The Presidential Years (2012-2017)’ by Pranab Mukherjee is not a dull book as one would think. Rather, it is a fascinating hardcover .Nowhere else will you find such a dispassionate, reliable account of the five animated years that Mukherjee presided over.

Mukherjee entered Parliament at thirty-four and rose to become the 13th President of India. A man of unmatched experience in governance, he has the rare distinction of having held various portfolios—sometimes concurrently—as Minister of Defence, External Affairs, Commerce and Finance. A seasoned parliamentarian, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha five times and to the Lok Sabha twice. He was a member of the Congress Working Committee, the highest policymaking body of the party for 23 years, till he became the president.

A soft-spoken man of steely determination, Pranab has been the go-to person in times of crises, both for the Congress and others. His role as a consensus-builder and his ability to forge unity amongst diverse political parties has earned him the respect of one and all. His  grasp of international relations, financial affairs and parliamentary processes combined with his phenomenal memory make him one of the most important and admired politicians of contemporary India. Since becoming president, Mukherjee wrote ‘The Indira Gandhi Years’, ‘The Turbulent Years’ and ‘The Coalition Years.’ This one is perhaps his last book!

As the blurb says, ’Pranab Mukherjee became President of India after having spent several decades in politics. There was great speculation over how he would approach his new dual-party role after having been associated with a political party for so many years of his life. By the time he had served his Term, Mukherjee had won the respect and admiration of people from across the political spectrum, including those who were his rivals when he was a political figure. He had the occasion to work with two prime ministers, belonging to two parties who were (and are) fiercely opposed to each other, and he managed to do so with aplomb’.

In the introduction, Mukherjee says, “I felt goose bumps as I read the lines that administered me the oath. I would now be following in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessors such as Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Husain and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, among others. I had to live up to both the dignity of the office I was assuming and the legacy of the stellar work that the other occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan had left behind.”

In the memoir, the former president makes a comparison between the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi in unambiguous terms. He says while Singh was Sonia Gandhi’s choice and “others accepted her choice”, Modi had received “a decisive mandate from the people”.

But Mukherjee punctures holes in the leadership of both leaders by saying that Singh was preoccupied with saving the coalition, while Modi seemed to have employed a rather autocratic style of governance during his first term, as seen by the bitter relationship among the government, the legislature and the judiciary.

Elsewhere in the memoir, Mukherjee writes: ‘Delhi Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, sought my advice on the important subject of the quality of education in our schools and introducing special curriculum on happiness. I used one of these occasions to speak my mind to Kejriwal on his penchant for sitting on dharna over frivolous issues. He had been prone to take to the streets to highlight various concerns…I told him that, while all this was fine when he was an activist, if he persisted with the same strategy as CM, it would not add to the dignity of the high office he occupied.’

The book has a dozen chapters on working of Parliament, 2014 elections, presidential addresses, Article 356, the judiciary, mercy petitions, foreign policy, presidential visits abroad, and interactions with other heads of state/government, demonetization/GST and working with two prime ministers.

Mukherjee holds both the Congress and BJP responsible for the falling standards of debate in Parliament, saying the decline began with NDA leaders disrupting proceedings during UPA II and UPA leaders following it up with even more disruptions after the BJP government came to power in 2014. His advice is that Modi should “take inspiration from his predecessors and provide more visible leadership, through his enhanced presence in Parliament to avoid situations that had precipitated the parliamentary crisis we witnessed in the first term”.

According to Mukherjee, the mere physical presence of the prime minister in Parliament makes a tremendous difference to the functioning of this institution: ‘Whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh, each of these former PMs made their presence felt on the floor of the House.’

A book of just two hundred pages with lavish photographs, ‘The Presidential Years’ is a charming account of how one of the country’s most respected  politicians reshaped the functioning of Rashtrapati Bhavan and responded to tumultuous events as the country’s first citizen. Mukherjee has added a section at the end called ‘Copybook relationships’. Here he talks about himself and Manmohan Singh who had worked together in government from 1971.

Mukherjee appreciates Modi, saying he even gave Modi advice when the latter did not ask for it — and that “there were several occasions when he (Modi) echoed the concerns I had voiced.” But, he is less approving of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh who, in his view, made a mess of both governance and politics after 2010. Mukherjee is very clear that had it been left to him the Congress would not have been reduced to just 44 seats in 2014.

The book is a down-to-earth and thoughtful memoir of a veteran politician–not a dismal narration of events.

The Presidential years

Pranab Mukherjee

Rupa Publications

New Delhi

2021

Rs 695

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist


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