Former President Pranab Mukherjee on The NDTV Dialogues spoke about his reflections on the last two decades - better known as the era of coalition in Indian politics. He shared his thoughts on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and what he feels about Rahul Gandhi as a leader as well why Ex-PM Manmohan Singh was the right PM at the right time.
Here's the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: Hello and welcome to the NDTV Dialogues. Today I am privileged to have as our guest a very special individual, the former President of India. One of our most senior and distinguished political leaders, someone who has a ringside view, in fact been a key participant in the political events of almost half a century of political life. Shri Pranab Mukherjee, thank you very much for joining NDTV and being on the programme.
Pranab Mukherjee: Thank you
NDTV: Sir, you are now citizen Mukherjee as you call yourself, as a citizen of this great Republic what do you think of the current political landscape, as someone who is uniquely qualified to give his views on what the current political shaping of India is?
Pranab Mukherjee: As a citizen of this great country, without having any political designation, I am enjoying the unfolding drama in the vast landscape of this great country. For the first time in the last almost 50 years, precisely 48 years, I am neither a Member of Parliament nor member of a political party. As a citizen I have the unique position to look into, to observe, to deflect and assimilate in my own mind how things are developing. As I developed detachment from day to day partisan approach, not political but partisan approach, I developed some sort of objectivity to analyse the things, observe within myself, rather internalize.
NDTV: Could you share with us Sir, some of the larger shifts in political landscape. Some of them occurred of course when you were President, but looking ahead now at 2017, when there almost seems to be a churn for central position, who is the defining feature, which party, which ideology is the defining feature of Indian polity today. In 2017 do you think the BJP is now what the Congress was many years ago, in terms of they define the agenda, they set the agenda and other political parties around it are just trying to play catch up in a sense?
Pranab Mukherjee: No doubt that BJP has emerged as an important political party and as ruling party they had the advantage of setting agenda on which parties and persons respond and react, but Congress has not lost its relevance. The agenda which you are having today is essentially the inclusive India which was set by Congress, precisely by the UPA government led by Congress, Dr Manmohan Singh. Inclusive development, in the story of development we have seen various phases, initial days it was to create capital, the country was capital starved. Thereafter, through planned economic development over the years, we emphasized on certain aspects at different phases. But one big improvement has taken place since Dr Manmohan Singh removed the stranglehold of Indian economy by liberalising it, reforming various policy frameworks in 1991 that has set the agenda that is broadly called reforms, which is being followed and pursued by all other political parties.
NDTV: But interestingly Sir, the BJP under PM Modi has identified the term or focus to be a Congress mukt bharat and when we talk about the change in political landscape of India we see the BJP again, under PM Modi, now in States where we would have never dreamt of the BJP being able to unleash the Congress stranglehold earlier, whether it is in the North East, whether it's the BJP as number 2 in your State West Bengal, even whether they are trying to make inroads into Kerala and the South. So do you think a Congress mukt bharat can be a reality at all?
Pranab Mukherjee: Personally I don't subscribe to this philosophy that in a multi-party democratic system we can get rid of any political party. Every political party has come to stay, play its role depending on their acceptability of their philosophy, ideology to the people of this country. Therefore as a political thesis I think it is not very correct but again it is not my observation as a Congressman ...
Pranab Mukherjee: ...which I was. I cannot claim myself to be so because there was a gap, but this I am analyzing as a student of history and politics. Sometimes some political parties, in terms of electoral battle, may be on the top, sometimes they may be at the bottom. Who could imagine that a party, who has got only 2 seats in Lok Sabha in 1984, could form government in 1996, within 12 years, with 180 being supported by others; therefore looking at a particular point of time and to make a judgment in the perspective of that time frame perhaps is not correct.
NDTV: You have Sir at your book launch and in your book as well you have made references to occasions when there were rumours or thoughts that perhaps you could be the Prime Minister of India and many have described you as the best Prime Minister India never had, and in fact I'll quote from what the Ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at your book launch, that you were better qualified to be PM but he had no choice in the matter. Now that's interesting, because why is it, that two senior leaders like both of you, why was there perhaps not a more democratic decision on who should be PM once the Congress coalition was taking power? Why was it left to just one person?
Pranab Mukherjee: You know the history of how the government formation took place in 2004. It is true we sought votes in the name of Sonia Gandhi, the then Congress President. She toured all over the country, addressed a number of meetings, people expressed their confidence in her and Congress got largest number of seats, not exactly majority but largest number of seats, about 147. She was unanimously elected leader of the Congress Party in the meeting of the elected members of Congress parliamentarians. She was also elected as the leader of the UPA. Other political parties RJD, DMK, TRS, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, NCP etc etc who formed the coalition, but later on she decided not to have the office of the PM. And thereafter the Congress Parliamentary Party gave the responsibility of choosing the leader and I think, and I have made these comments several times, that she chose the right person. Dr Manmohan Singh was the right person to be chosen to lead the country at that point of time. And serving under him for 8 years, he continued to be PM for 10 years, I can say with confidence that he provided the right leadership to the nation as Prime Minister. So far as I am concerned I have stated it a number of times that I have received much more from the people of this country than I have given to them, so I am content with what I have received. I served this country as a minister in the Union Government for 22 years. I had the rare privilege of being the leader of both the houses, Rajya Sabha from 1980 to 1985, Lok Sabha from 2004 to 2012 till I resigned from the ministerships. I served the Congress party being member of its highest policy making body, the working committee from 1978 with a gap in between for several years till 2012, what else can one expect. Therefore I received and got much more and I am quite satisfied and content with what I have received.
NDTV: Listening really Sir to that record, the number of Prime Ministers you have worked with since Indira Gandhi, tell us in your perspective who do you think in the various PMs you have worked with, you have seen as an Opposition leader, who do you think are the Prime Ministers that have really stood out for you in terms of their contribution, in terms of their unique abilities?
Pranab Mukherjee: No I have not served with all Prime Ministers. I have served mainly with Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Of course I served under Rajiv Gandhi for 2 months, November, December, from 31st October 1984 to 31st December 1984, but Indira Gandhi 9 years, as junior minister from 1973 to '77 and full cabinet minister from 1980 till her assassination. No doubt to me she was the best and not only to me, even the various surveys which we found even after her death, 30 years after her death, many of the Indians consider her as the best they had as Prime Minister. But each and every Prime Minister with whom I had the privilege of working has made stellar contributions to the country. Take the example of PV Narasimha Rao. Jokingly, not so jokingly, but with a little light heartedness that he made it an art of Indecision, not to take a decision is a decision. That does not mean he was indecisive. He was very much decisive. But sometimes he did not take decisions to avert contradictions or to avert controversies or he found that not to take decision is correct in that situation. Therefore Dr Manmohan Singh was a text book Prime Minister, he gave liberty to his cabinet ministers to the fullest extent as possible, always took decisions which emerged out of consensus, which emerged out of discussion as the decision, either in the Cabinet or sometimes political decisions in the Congress Working Committee. These are the; of course I have worked with Rajiv Gandhi but I watched his performance, he was the harbinger of the reforms. He dreamt of India of 21st Century and the technological revolution which I find today in India is largely his contribution, particularly in mobile and telecommunication. Therefore each and every PM has made his contribution. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he has a unique stellar contribution as PM for 6 years, I have mentioned certain facts in my book. Not only was he an excellent orator, he could carry the House with him. But his administrative decisions, still in determination sometimes reminded the actions taken by Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Therefore every PM had his own contribution.
NDTV: What has struck you about PM Modi? What do you think of him?
Pranab Mukherjee: Unique capacity to work very hard with a strong determination to achieve his objectives. This one characteristic I find in him. Secondly he is clear in his vision, what he wants to achieve and he works hard to achieve that. This one should remember, it was not easy for him coming straight from the State, not even serving the Parliament as a member for few years, but he grasped the intricacies of the administration, internal dynamics of Indian politics, foreign policies, relationships with the neighbours. I'll just mention one example because I cannot narrate the relationships and conversations between Prime Minister and President, it is so privileged that even the Court has no right to have any access. But I'll give one example to you when he decided and suggested to me, rather I had to approve it, because he was yet to be PM, that at the time of taking oath he would like to invite the heads of Government of SAARC states, this was a unique suggestion and readily I agreed and we had the presence of Prime Ministers of SAARC countries or the representatives if the PM could not come, for example Bangladesh PM could not come, she was having a tour to some other countries, but her representatives came, all others came.
NDTV: Sir as you said you were a lifelong Congressman, now no longer a member of any political party, but now we have elections coming for the post of party president. Critics would say the BJP has said elections in the Congress Party are by name, an assumption that Rahul Gandhi will be the next President of the Congress Party. Do you think that is a drawback in party democracy that it's assumed that Rahul Gandhi is the only choice to be party president?
Pranab Mukherjee: First of all whether Rahul Gandhi will be President or not it will be chosen by the Congressmen as per the Congress Constitution and this Constitution is pretty old. Delegates of the Indian National Congress elect the Congress President, therefore how they will exercise that is of course the internal matter. How CPI(M) holds elections? It is the internal mechanism and constitution of that party, same is the story with BJP, each party has its own rules, systems, way of functioning and we shall always have to keep in mind when we evaluate Indian National Congress, that Indian National Congress, a 132 year old party, has the tremendous capacity to learn, to adjust, to adopt and always to rejuvenate itself. If somebody goes through the history of INC 1885 to 1900, 1900 to 1916, after Gandhi arrives on scene, till his death, then these instances will be proved by facts. Therefore before sitting on judgment of the internal functioning of a political party we should be a little careful. If the Congress delegates who have been elected, if they have decided to choose a particular person, who are the others to say who are not part of the system to make some comment on it?
NDTV: So do you feel the Gandhi's are an integral of the glue that holds the Congress party together because in a sense you have seen all of them over the years. Do you think Rahul Gandhi is ready to take on the job and what do you feel about the many interactions with him over the years?
Pranab Mukherjee: I have various interactions with every leader, contemporary leaders, I worked with his grandmother, of course I never worked with Nehru Ji. I was just a teacher when he died in 1964, I was teaching in a college. Same is the story with Lal Bahadur; Moraji,I just saw him as PM when I was sitting in the Opposition Bench and I had interaction in that capacity. But what I want to point out is this young man has the capacity, qualified to respond, to change, to adapt, to adjust, which is the qualification of a leader and leadership is always thrown out of circumstances, situations prevail at that point of time and how one responds to that situation determines the quality of the leadership. A leader is not made. Indira Gandhi was not readily made by anybody like Madam Tussauds, image of wax, circumstances threw her leadership, similarly circumstances threw leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, I am not talking of 1984, but after the Tamilian problems became serious in Sri Lanka, unique leadership he provided. Leadership which he provided for disarmament, in the United Nations, in the United Nations Disarmament Conference; circumstances, situations throw up the leaders.
NDTV: Have the polls become more Presidential, in a sense that people vote for a central figure, do you think it will be PM Modi vs Rahul Gandhi battle in 2019?
Pranab Mukherjee: I am not talking of individuals, but always from 1952, so for Congress party's concern they have always thrown the leaders. As a young boy I remember the first poster INC brought out for the election from 1952. I'm talking of Bengal, the face of Nehru, promise of implementing first five year plan which talked of farmers, irrigation, industrialisation, solution of unemployment problems. So first, second, third with Nehru's face. Fourth election Congress could not provide a face before the emergence of Indira Gandhi, Congress came down; came down from 362 to 282.
NDTV: Interestingly Sir, we also talk at a time when the PM has keenly mentioned on simultaneous elections. You just mentioned the challenges of having the Lok Sabha elections in India. Do you feel that simultaneous elections are feasible, are they welcome in a country like India? Mamata has said it will undermine democracy, others say it's moving to a Presidential system, do you favour simultaneous elections?
Pranab Mukherjee: It's not a question of my favouring or not. It's a question of probability. How do you do it? What is the scheme of the parliamentary system, that the Government must have the working majority in the legislature, Lok Sabha in case of federal government, State Assemblies in case of State governments. If the majority is lost what are you going to do? In the State for one year you can have President's Rule but what about Centre? There is no President's Rule. Therefore you will have to go for premature elections if the clear mandate in the House in favour of a government is not available. There may be coalition governments. 10 years Dr Manmohan Singh led the coalition government. Vajpayee led 6 years the coalition government. But at the same time Mr Deve Gowda or Mr Inder Kumar Gujral could not lead or Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Therefore stories are there from both sides. So question is how do you guarantee that there will be a workable majority for a Government by the verdict of the people, because here the Government is formed by the people through the general election? So it may be desirable, but how it will be possible, achievable? It is to be thought of. In some cases it may be that there would be long spate of Presidential Rules in the States. If Centre has a clear majority, either by single party majority, but it has to be ensured that same thing happens in the States. How do you ensure it? Because even in the same elections we have seen people are voting in different ways in Lok Sabha and in Assembly.
NDTV: Interesting aspects you have raised, interesting Constitutional aspects as well. But just looking back Sir, also at some of the Presidential years, one of the interesting points that had come up, one of the rare occasions when the Court had actually overturned ruling in Arunachal Pradesh, is there anything that you would like to say now of what you thought when Supreme Court decision came overruling what actually happened?
Pranab Mukherjee: Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the Constitution, they interpreted the Constitution in a way they found it is necessary. So therefore there were certain mistakes and the Supreme Court has pointed out, I cannot make any comments on it because Supreme Court has exercised its Constitutional jurisdiction.
NDTV: Did you at any point have second thoughts Sir, when it was presented to you?
Pranab Mukherjee: I cannot share with anybody, as I told you.
NDTV: Other interesting aspects, now as a citizen let me ask you, as somebody who has been a finance minister, it was the decision of your Government, but looking now at the impact of demonetisation today on the common person and the issue of joblessness. Demonetisation as PM Modi said was first suggested in a way by Indira Gandhi. Do you think demonetisation will be good for the Indian economy and how do you look at the whole issue of jobs, which is currently the issue?
Pranab Mukherjee: One thing is to be kept in mind when a decision is being taken, there is an intent; even when a law is being made there is an intent. And there is another aspect. How do you implement that intent? One of the objectives of demonetisation was to immobilise the black money. Intent may be correct but how to implement it? If it's not properly implemented it may not give the desired results. Secondly, some of the economic decisions have had its impact not immediately felt but it is felt later on. While commenting on it, Manmohan Singh made a significant observation that impact of demonetisation would be slow growth. Some economists considered that it would be slow growth immediately, but later on it will improve. Now what would happen, after all we have to keep in mind that economics is not physical science, laws of economics are not as fixed as results are, as determined in the way physical science laws are determined. So therefore how the economic actions will have their impact on people and how they will respond to it is yet to be seen.
NDTV: Some political observers say that often the Indian public is stuck between two 'Cs', corruption associated with the Congress party and communalism that is associated with the BJP. Would you agree with that view Sir and why do you think the Congress is now associated with corruption and what do you feel about BJP and communalism?
Pranab Mukherjee: Both these things, you cannot fix any political party with a particular epithet. It is wrong. Congress has fought against corruption, ask any Congressman, he will give large number of examples, events, incidents, not only Congressmen, these are the facts.
NDTV: But 2014 may have been influenced by the perception of corruption
Pranab Mukherjee: No. No. Perceptions and actuality there is a difference. Facts remain that in the later phase it appeared that Government's decision-making process has been stagnant. This was an impression. Many of the decisions could not be implemented effectively because of the compulsions of coalition. Coalition Government has some informities, some disadvantages, one such is that Prime Minister is not the master of the whole situation and in a single party government it provides that opportunity to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister starts with the weakness in choosing the ministers. In a coalition government leader of the coalition is not authorised to choose the ministers from other political parties. Therefore these are the difficulties. Shortly, what I say is it is difficult and it is not correct to brand a particular political party as corrupt or associate it with communalism.
NDTV: Even though the Congress has done this for long, done that, associating the BJP with communalism, you don't agree with that?
Pranab Mukherjee: It is not for one political party to decide about the other political party. It is for the people to decide about all political parties, I am talking about people's perception.
NDTV: One interesting thing you said in the book, when Shankaracharya was arrested, you were very upset with it, by saying that this cannot be the tenets of secularism to be used only against Hindu seers and saints, what if a Muslim cleric had been arrested during Eid time
Pranab Mukherjee: What I said actually when this thing was reported, I will correct it in the next edition, it's not that I decided. Cabinet decided that Government of Tamil Nadu will be advised not to oppose the bail. The issue came when he was arrested in connection with the murder case. That is a local matter. It was at the time of Diwali so I asked that everybody was saying that no, no, no, it's a correct decision. So I angrily told them what do you mean by it? Do you have the courage to arrest the local Imam in the month of Ramzan? Don't sectionalise secularism. Don't brand it with a particular community, with a particular event. At the time of Diwali, when the country is in a mood of celebration and an important religious leader, he has a large following, it was Kanchipuram Shankaracharya.
NDTV: That was an interesting insight because Congress and this was used by BJP very effectively, had been accused of pandering to minority vote bank politics
Pranab Mukherjee: When other political parties, non-Congress political parties, bring this allegation that we are making vote bank politics, Congress is making vote bank politics, political parties will have their own way of expression, I have no comment on it
NDTV: Finally Sir, as we come to the end, as President you made very important speeches when you lectured around the country, when you spoke at key moments, stressing on the unity and diversity of India, stressing on tolerance, stressing on the kind of patriotism we should see. Why did you find it so important to make these speeches, was there a message perhaps?
Pranab Mukherjee: I wanted to convey the message when I found that various incidents of intolerance are appearing in the media; when I found that people of a particular religion are being lynched I went to the extent, that this a time for all of us to deflect what has happened to us. Therefore we shall have to keep in mind that core value of Indian civilisation is tolerance. Indians may be argumentative, but Indians cannot be intolerant. Core value of Indian civilization, which has the lasting effect for more than 5000 years, is tolerance, acceptance of diversity. And what is India today? If we imagine the map of India, the vast landmass having 3 billion people using more than 100 languages and dialects in their everyday life, practicing several religions, having different costumes, food habits, way of life, yet living under one Constitution, in one system, one flag, how is it possible? It is because of the acceptance of this huge diversity and this is best on tolerance and it will be fragmented if we indulge in intolerance. That's why I was repeatedly saying that we may be argumentative, but we cannot be intolerant
NDTV: But was that message to the people of India, to the politicians of India because often it's the politicians who are fanning these flames of intolerance?
Pranab Mukherjee: Once the people decide politicians have to follow
NDTV: Do you feel Sir the Nehruvian idea, we know that Pandit Nehru, his whole contribution to India seeks to be rewritten in a sense that Pandit Nehru's vision on idea of India has now changed. Perhaps looking at Prime Minister Modi's vision of a new India, what do you think is your vision of India?
Pranab Mukherjee: Vision of India cannot be given by individuals. As I was telling you about the core values of Indian civilization, India has its vision much larger than individuals of India. Various individuals, several times, Rabindranath, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Nehru and many others, they have visualized, they have tried to find out the visions of India. Therefore various individuals, various thinkers, they have their own ideas about India, nothing wrong in it
NDTV: Mr Mukherjee thank you so much for speaking to NDTV. It's been a privilege speaking to you, thank you Sir
Pranab Mukherjee: Thank you
NDTV: Thank you very much