Pranab Mukherjee never gets his due from the Congress because others have to be kept at bay. This is a poor reflection on the state of the Congress leadership
Conventional wisdom has it that there are two power centres in the UPA; in reality, there have been three. As chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi is the supreme leader but without the responsibility of day-to-day governance. That task was left to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004, who as head of the Cabinet was meant to be a CEO-like figure entrusted with policy execution. But there has always been a third power centre, less visible perhaps, but no less important. Pranab Mukherjee has always been much more than just a senior minister in the UPA. He has been the Chief Operating Officer, responsible for managing the multiple challenges posed by coalition politics.
For the last seven years, Mukherjee has been the ‘go to’ person for almost every critical policy or political decision taken by the UPA. At one time, he headed as many as 32 Group of Ministers appointed to handle various economic and political issues. That number is now down to 10, but it doesn’t diminish his role and importance in the UPA government. Any crisis within the UPA sees Mukherjee’s residence at 13 Talkatora Road become the focal point, while at times 7 Race Course Road remains on the periphery.
That one individual should be expected to resolve all problems, from Telangana to foreign direct investment in retail to inflation to corruption reveals the limitations of the UPA system, a system which has a PM who has never won a popular election and a chairperson who chooses to stay away from the rigours of daily politics. Perhaps, it’s an arrangement that suits the UPA’s presiding duo: a quintessential bureaucrat, Singh has never been comfortable with managing the pulls and pressures of alliance politics. The PM’s style has been to distance himself as far as possible from taking direct responsibility for political decisions (the Indo-US nuclear deal being a notable exception). Decision-making through a group of ministers rather than by personal diktat has been Singh’s preferred option. Gandhi too, has preferred to nudge the political system through a National Advisory Council, a motley group of individuals with no political constituency to worry about, but having the power and freedom to influence government decisions.
In such a situation, Mukherjee has emerged as the primary crisis manager of the UPA, but a politician whose personal ambitions are confined within a certain ‘lakshman rekha’ set for him by the UPA board of directors. He cannot, for example, aspire to be PM. The UPA’s system of leadership works on the basis of enjoying the full trust and confidence of the First Family, and somehow Mukherjee has always been eyed with wariness by 10 Janpath. Perhaps, this is the burden of history: the story, never fully validated, of how he attempted to succeed Indira Gandhi in 1984 is still held against him. In the Congress, ambition must always be cloaked in self-effacing humility and subservience, and Mukherjee is deemed to have failed the critical loyalty test.
And yet, for much of the last seven years, the UPA’s ruling troika has managed the internal equation rather well. With Gandhi as a Mother-like symbol of unity, Singh as the honest chief executive and Mukherjee as the ever-willing deputy, the UPA has survived most challenges. Until now, Gandhi’s ill-health has meant that she hasn’t been able to play her natural role of being the ‘face’ of the UPA who can hold the alliance together. The series of corruption scandals have weakened the PM’s monopoly over the integrity quotient. And the discordant notes within the Cabinet have undermined Mukherjee’s capacity to handle crisis situations. Why, for example, was Mukherjee sent to lead a ‘delegation’ to meet Swami Ramdev at the airport is a mystery to which there has been no adequate answer till now. Or why was Mukherjee virtually forced into giving a press statement on the 2G controversy when only days earlier he had maintained that the matter was sub-judice?
Part of the problem seems to lie in the lines getting blurred between individual ministerial responsibility and ‘collective’ Cabinet responsibility, even as a certain arbitrariness and arrogance has crept into decision-making. Anna Hazare’s arrest and the subsequent mishandling of the anti-corruption agitation is a good example of this. Till today, we don’t know just who took the final decision to arrest Hazare, and whether the decision was endorsed by all senior Cabinet ministers. A hapless Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari may have been the soft target for having questioned Anna’s anti-corruption credentials, but it’s difficult to believe that he was acting on his own volition.
Ditto the case with the 2G licences. To believe that A Raja was acting as an autonomous entity in complete disregard of the Cabinet and prime ministerial authority is to defy logic. If his criminality went unnoticed, then it is a grievous sin of omission, if it was winked at under coalition compulsions, then it suggests collusion and worse. Unfortunately, the PM has chosen to be either silent or evasive, thereby giving the regrettable impression that he isn’t willing to accept any responsibility for his ministers’ flawed actions.
In a sense, one does feel a little sorry for Mukherjee. He represents in many ways the old style neta for whom politics is a 24x7 mucky profession where you have to get your hands dirty. For him to become a fall guy because others prefer to be kept at an arm’s length from any form of political accountability is a poor reflection on the state of the UPA’s leadership.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18
The views expressed by the author are personal