Pranabs progress

Published : Jul 27, 2012 00:00 IST

Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA's presidential candidate, files his nomination papers at Parliament House on June 28. To his right are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Lok Dal leader and Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh are seated behind.-SHAHBAZ KHAN/PTI

Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA's presidential candidate, files his nomination papers at Parliament House on June 28. To his right are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Lok Dal leader and Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh are seated behind.-SHAHBAZ KHAN/PTI

The controversies surrounding the UPA candidates long record in government refuse to die down.

The credibility concerns that have increasingly afflicted mainstream politics have found reflection in Presidential Election 2012. The principal contenders, Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, supported by the majority of parties in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and Purno Sangma, who is backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), face issues relating to credibility at one or other level and to varying degrees. Pranab Mukherjees candidature is undoubtedly the central piece of the election for the support it has got from different segments of the political spectrum and the controversies it has generated. The controversies pertain to several issues spread across his four-decade-long political career, including his political stances at various junctures and his individual choices and priorities. The most recent of these was the charge that he did not resign his office of profit position as Chairman of the Indian Statistical Institute before filing his nomination in the presidential election. The accusation was that his signature on the resignation letter along with his affidavit for the presidential nomination was forged.

The heat and dust generated by this controversy is such that Sangma demanded that the UPA nominees candidature be quashed. He also said that a Pranab Mukherjee victory could be challenged in the Supreme Court. Pranabs supporters ask whether Sangma, who made a political shift even in the run-up to the election, has the moral and political authority to champion issues of probity.

Many other questions relating to Pranabs political career have also captured media and public attention amid the campaign. They range from his decisions and actions during the Emergency (1975-77) to his alleged role as facilitator in the rise of a big corporate house. The issue of the support to Pranabs candidature by members of this corporate house has been raised during the election campaign.

The allegations against him relating to the Emergency period question his democratic credentials. The BJP leadership claims that Pranab played an active role in enforcing the repressive regime unleashed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. The Shah Commission constituted by the subsequent Janata Party government accused Pranab of not cooperating with it. Although Shri Pranab Mukherjee assisted the commission at the preliminary stage of the fact-finding inquiry, he did not file any statement in the case, as was required to be done under Rule 5(2)(a) of the Commission of Inquiry (Central) Rules, 1972. He had responded to the summons u/s 8B of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. But he refused to take oath and tender evidence, the Shah Commission report said. It is believed that Pranab toed Indira Gandhis line in his refusal to depose before the commission.

The commission noted in great detail that Pranab had played a great role in unceremoniously removing T.R. Varadachary as State Bank of Indias Chairman without citing any reason and appointing K.C. Puri in the post. Puri happened to be a close aide of Sanjay Gandhi. The Shah Commission also noted that Pranab, as the Minister of State for Revenue, played a major role in bypassing official procedure during the Emergency to target people who were known for their anti-Congress politics. Of the many raids he had ordered were those on the houses of trade union leaders Prabhat Kar and D.P. Chadha, general secretary and president respectively of the All India Bank Employees Association. His order to arrest Gayatri Devi, former Rajmata of Jaipur, and Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia is criticised even today.

The infamous raids on the Bajaj and Mukund groups in May 1976 are still cited as instances of breach of official powers. The two conglomerates had openly come out in support of the anti-corruption movement of Jayaprakash Narayan and the Sarvodaya movement. In the course of its inquiry, the Shah Commission noted that while these raids were being pursued by the Ministry of Revenue for tax evasion, no action was taken against two women who were registered as shareholders in Maruti Limited, a Sanjay Gandhi venture, as their addresses could not be verified despite their names being in the defaulters list. It also noted that any inquiries against Maruti Limited were stopped abruptly during the Emergency. The Shah Commission clearly indicts Pranab for cronyism during the Emergency and for non-cooperation.

When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she made Pranab her Finance Minister, which many believed was a reward for his loyalty. As Finance Minister, Pranab is widely believed to have shown undue favours to one particular business conglomerate. The differential taxation system that he introduced is said to have nearly ruined the textile industry leader Bombay Dyeing, while it benefited a competitor, which grew in stature and eventually emerged as the industry leader in the 1980s. The allegations continued into Pranabs latest stint in the Finance Ministry when a former Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) member, K.M. Abraham, accused him and his close officers of favouring a few corporates.

Incidentally, Pranab tried to justify the controversial raids during the Emergency as a step to curb the flow of black money outside India. He made the point as part of his defence of the UPA-II government when the opposition charged it with inaction against the flow of black money.

He even presented a white paper on black money in Parliament. The opposition, many intellectuals, and economists, however, said that the white paper was mostly tokenism rather than an account of government action.

The white paper does not give any estimate of black money and instead documents the various Bills that were brought out by the UPA-II government. The journalist and researcher Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, in a scathing criticism, noted: The Finance Minister acknowledges that the report was presented to comply with an assurance given in Parliament and that he would have been happy if he could have included the conclusions of reports of three premier institutions that have been tasked to quantify the magnitude of black money, reports which are likely to be received by the end of the year. The institutions include the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy that prepared a study on the black economy of India in 1985, which suggested that illegal income generation in India was not less than 18 per cent of the countrys gross domestic product (GDP). This finding was criticised by the economists Suraj B. Gupta and Arun Kumar, both of whom suggested that the proportion was much higher at around 40 per cent.

Against the backdrop of the corruption scandals that unravelled in the recent past, the white paper was criticised as mere tokenism rather than a mooting of new ideas. Thakurta said the white paper listed out only standard strategies like rationalisation of tax rates and reducing transaction costs of compliance and administration, while calling for reforms in sectors that are vulnerable such as real estate, gold and jewellery.

One offensive that the opposition and Team Anna, through the forum of India Against Corruption, have carried out against Pranab is based on the number of scandals that unfolded during his tenure as Defence Minister from 2004 to 2006 in UPA-I. In the navy war-room leak case, three naval officers were accused of receiving kickbacks from defence suppliers in order to seal a deal. The Scorpene submarine case, pertaining to the involvement of middlemen in defence deals and their nexus with officers, also originated during Pranabs tenure. In both cases, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is still conducting inquiries. Similarly, when Pranab was the External Affairs Minister, the government of Ghana had accused Indian officials and Ministers of high-handed corruption in the export of rice. The opposition accused him of shielding the Ministers and the officials in what later came to be known as the rice scam.

Pranabs tenure in the Cabinet in the two UPA regimes was marred by controversies. He is said to have played an important role in fixing the India-United States nuclear deal, and was accused of favouring the nuclear supplier companies in the name of improving Indias power situation. Similarly, when he became the biggest advocate of foreign direct investment in the retail sector, many intellectuals accused him of supporting big corporates at the cost of the livelihoods of farmers and small businessmen.

Pranab also faces the charge of favouritism. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who supports Sangma, told the media: Pranab Mukherjee as the Union Finance Minister was doling out huge sums of money, going into lakhs of crores, to Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Could it be that this money is going because he wants certain parties, like Mulayam Singhs [Samajwadi Party], Nitish Kumars [Janata Dal-United] and Mamata Banerjees [Trinamool Congress], to support his candidature as Rashtrapati of India? This is not private money, but peoples money... your money. I am glad that the people of those States would benefit, [but why is] so much money being given by the Central government when the Rashtrapati elections are going on? The Congress rubbished this argument.

In spite of such denials, the overwhelming impression in New Delhis political circles, including among parties that have supported Pranabs candidature, is that Congress managers have, as has been their wont over the past three years, bungled on very many fronts. It was pointed out that a careful scrutiny of the presidential election nomination papers would have shown the deficiency in terms of documentation, especially on issues relating to office of profit. There was also the view that the problems that surfaced in the presidential election reflected the larger political travails of the Congress and its government. Among them, the inability to control the prices of essentials, the challenge of corruption charges and the internal splits in the ruling coalition over the past three years. Sections of the UPA, too, agree and add that Pranab, in many ways, is a representative of the woes of the Central government and the Congress.

THE tribal pitch

Many of Pranabs supporters point out that Sangma is no different on most of these issues. He has been part of the Congress political tradition for most of his life and has been a constant beneficiary of its give and take style of functioning. Even after leaving the Congress and joining the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) he benefited from this political style. He cannot highlight issues of policy concerning the UPA because his party, too, has been part of the government during the entire stint.

Though Sangma has presented himself as a candidate representing tribal interests, he personally, or the UPA to which he belonged until recently, has not really championed tribal issues forcefully. Significantly, his daughter, Agatha Sangma, is an NCP Member of Parliament and a Minister in UPA-II and continues to campaign for him even though he has quit the NCP.

Several political observers and activists of the Congress and the NCP point out that Sangma astutely planned a new shift in his political career keeping in mind the expected reverses for the Congress and the UPA in the next general election. He was not in the limelight for long and now he has got it. More importantly, he has tied up with regional parties like the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] and the Biju Janata Dal, which would have significant political space after the next general election. Equally importantly, he could fill the void of a prominent Christian face in the BJP-led NDA [National Democratic Alliance] caused by the absence of George Fernandes, who has been unwell for a long time, said a senior NCP leader to Frontline.

Congress managers, on their part, say that almost all presidential elections have been marred by controversies. They pointed out that in 1967, Zakir Hussain was even accused of being anti-national by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP. Despite our cherished intent that the President and the election for that position should be beyond partisan considerations, they do tend to reflect some of the contentious tendencies in our body politic, said Manish Tiwari, Congress spokesperson.

Even the election of the first President, Rajendra Prasad, had its fissiparous moments. Prasad was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patels nominee and his candidature was intensely debated within the Congress, in which one section, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, supported C. Rajagopalachari. Finally, the majority prevailed and Nehru had to give way for Prasad. With rising dissensions in the party and the country slowly moving away from one-party rule, the fourth presidential election, held in 1969, saw V.V. Giri being chosen as the preferred candidate by the electoral college. Giri defeated the official Congress nominee, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, leading to a split in the party. The contest was so keen that second preference votes had to be counted to reach the result. The election underscored Indira Gandhis political ascendancy, but that did not deter the opposition from filing an election petition against Giri.

By all indications, Pranab, too, could be headed in the same direction if the BJP and Sangma fulfil their warning to take things to the judiciary. Despite this, there is little doubt that the numbers are stacked in Pranabs favour. But that by itself does not ensure that he will have a controversy-free ride to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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