Tuesday, June 17, 2014

President Pranab Mukherjee’s Vision: Rising Above Party Politics

Dr. A Surya Prakash, 
Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The President, Mr Pranab Mukherjee gave the customary address to the joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament after the historic Lok Sabha election of 2014 which ended the era of fractious coalitions and resulted in a dramatic change of government and a clear majority for a single party after three decades. As the President spoke to the members of the two Houses, he made no effort to hide his happiness over the decisive nature of the mandate given by the people.

As per convention, the President’s speech dwelt at length on the economic agenda of the new government, its vision for social welfare and its philosophy of governance. Mr Mukherjee spoke of the government’s plans for the empowerment of women, new opportunities for the youth, education, health care, agriculture, national security, foreign policy, e-governance and measures to kick start the economy. All this is de rigueur for a presidential address to Parliament, but what was interesting was the proximity between the President’s pre-election desire for a decisive mandate, leading to a strong government (which he outlined in his Republic Day eve speech on January 25this year) and the final outcome of Election 2014.

Mr Mukherjee was naturally delighted to note that the electorate had heeded the warning he gave five months ago and taken his advice vis-à-vis the undesirability of unstable, fractious coalitions and therefore had no qualms in referring to it when he addressed Parliament on June 9. For the former Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh and the Congress President, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, some of the comments of the Rashtrapati must have been really painful to hear. For example, Mr Mukherjee said this election had been an “election of hope” which marked “a turning point in the evolution of our democratic polity”. Further, he said there was a surge of aspirations and the people believed that these aspirations could be realized through the democratic process. That is why they had come out in record numbers to vote and that is why they had voted decisively in favour of a single political party after a gap of 30 years. He further said that the electorate transcended the boundaries of caste, creed, region and religion and come together to vote resolutely “in favour of development and good governance”. In other words, the President told parliamentarians that the people did not expect their aspirations to be met by the previous regime and therefore, they were casting their lot with the new regime headed by Mr Narendra Modi! Further, they were voting for “development and good governance” this time, meaning that the Manmohan Singh Government did not provide either of them!

It must have indeed been galling for Mr Manmohan Singh and Ms Sonia Gandhi to sit in the front row of the Central Hall of Parliament and hear Mr Pranab Mukherjee, a veteran Congressman whom they chose for the office of President in 2012, to extol the wisdom of the voters in the recent election, which reduced the Congress Party to just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha!

The President also was happy to note that the electorate had given a clear mandate to one party. In fact, in his Republic Day speech earlier this year, Mr Mukherjee had exhorted the people to vote with clarity and to shed ambivalence. Clearly, he was unhappy with the unruly and corrupt coalitions that were running the Union Government in recent years and felt the need to caution the people about the deleterious effect that coalition governments had on governance.

Mr Mukherjee therefore seemed delighted this week to recall the advice he had given the people some months earlier when he addressed the joint session of the two Houses of Parliament. He recalled that on Republic Day he had hoped that 2014 would be a year of healing after the fractured and contentious politics of the previous years. “Standing here today, I applaud the wisdom of my fellow citizens for having voted for stability, honesty and development in a resurgent India in which corruption will have no place. They have voted for a united, strong, and modern India - “Ek Bharat - Shreshtha Bharat” he said.

Although the President’s address to the joint sitting of Parliament is cleared by the Union Cabinet, the irony of Mr Mukherjee, a Congressman of long –standing applauding “the wisdom’ of his fellow citizens for having voted for ‘stability, honesty and development”, was lost on no one. He even said that the vote was for a resurgent India “in which corruption would have no place”.

Undoubtedly, each of these sentences constitute a direct and unambiguous indictment of the Manmohan Singh government, which, the electorate felt could not guarantee any of these things. That is why, while everyone in the Central Hall thumped their desks in approval, Mr Manmohan Singh and Ms Sonia Gandhi listened to the President in stunned stiffness. Much to their chagrin, the President’s words were in sync with the BJP slogan that ‘acche din aane wale hai” as he seemed to suggest that Election 2014 would indeed herald better days for the people. The significance of these remarks of the President is best understood when one does a flashback and recalls the advice he gave citizens on January 25 this year, just a few months before the elections.

In fact, many Congress eye brows were raised on the eve of the last Republic Day when Mr Mukherjee called for a conclusive mandate, because they felt that was in line with the Narendra Modi argument that the country needed a strong and decisive government and that only he could provide such a government provided the people helped him fulfill his mission of 272 +.

In that Republic Day speech, which was distinct and, as it now turns out, prophetic, the President appeared to be concerned about where the nation was headed and keen to share his anxieties with fellow citizens. He also used that occasion to send a strong message to the electors about what they should do in the Lok Sabha election that was scheduled some months hence.

In that speech, Mr Mukherjee appeared to be giving the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh, a rap on the knuckles when he said there was growing sense of helplessness among the people and “ we do feel angry and rightly so, when we see democratic institutions being weakened by complacency and incompetence’. Further, he said “if we hear sometimes an anthem of despair from the street, it is because the people feel that a sacred trust is being violated”. Then came the President’s oracular warning while talking about corruption. He said “if Indians are enraged, it is because ‘they are witnessing corruption and waste of national resources. If governments do not remove these flaws, the voters will remove governments”.

Mr Mukherjee also used that occasion to come down on the reckless populism of the Manmohan Singh government, the Aam Aadmi Party and some state governments when he said that “Government is not a charity shop. Populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for good governance”.

Finally, in that historic speech, Mr Mukherjee warned the people of the dangers of yet another fractious coalition coming to power. He said 2014 was not just another election year. A fractured government, which is hostage to whimsical opportunists will be an ‘unhappy eventuality” and in 2014, such an eventuality could be ‘catastrophic” for the nation. Therefore, “2014 is a precipice moment in our history” and in this year ‘we must re-discover the sense of national purpose and patriotism, which lifts the nation above the across the abyss”. Finally, he delivered a warning to voters, though couched as an advice. He said “Don’t let India down”.

He said all this on January 25, 2014. Therefore, one would presume that the Rashtrapati was indeed a very happy man when the results from 543 Lok Sabha constituencies poured in on May 16 and the voters gave an unambiguous mandate to one party after 30 long years and ended the coalition era that bred corruption and inefficiency and resulted in nation-wide despondency.

Although the President’s address to Parliament is cleared by the Union Cabinet, it is safe to assume that the text was by and large in consonance with Mr Mukherjee’s own assessment of the national mood and his desire for a strong and effective government that would inject a positive mood among the 1.3 billion citizens of the country. That is why Mr Mukherjee felt compelled on June 9, when he addressed Parliament, to refer to the advice he had given citizens on the eve of Republic Day.

Although he has been a member of the Congress Party all his life, Mr Mukherjee has shown that the Rashtrapati cannot be put into a political strait jacket. He ought to be above politics. That is why he did some plain speaking last January about the dangers of fractious coalitions and that is why he accepted the verdict of May 16 with utmost grace and dignity. Being a veteran in our public life, he is well aware of the fact that these are the ironies of democracy and that it is incumbent on good democrats to honourably accept the peoples’ mandate and work in consonance with the spirit of that verdict. Mr Mukherjee is doing just that. However, one found the former Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh and the Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi squirming in their seats during the President’s hour-long address to the joint sitting of the two Houses. The sooner they accept the reality, the better, because until then, their democratic credentials will be in doubt.

Published Date: 16th June 2014, Image source: http://news24online.asia

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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