At home, all we discussed was politics: Pranab Mukherjee

Pranab Mukherjee

His career as a teacher early on in life deepened Pranab Mukherjee’s interest in politics. He believes every politician should contest the Lok Sabha elections and seek a mandate through direct election. The former finance minister tells Deputy Editor Dhiraj Nayyar that the quality of politics will improve if young people join and bring fresh ideas and dynamism to the table.

Q. You started your career as a teacher. How important was that phase in shaping your future career as a politician?

A. Teaching was my transition from student life to working life. In those days, our system of education was a little different. The number of students in each class was huge. I think in political science general, which I taught, it was around 100. So, to speak from the platform and then to convince them was a challenge. The subject was such that I developed real interest in it. My deeper interests in political developments not only in India but also abroad are because of my academic background and my teaching experience.

Q. What ultimately inspired you to join politics?

A. I come from a political family. My father was a freedom fighter. He was a prominent leader of the locality and member of the Congress party. He spent 10 years in British prisons. In the evening, in our living room, the only subject we used to discuss was politics. So politics was not unfamiliar to me.

One event did influence me very much. I first joined a regional party. I was not a member of the Indian National Congress initially. I was, of course, not a member of any political party while I started teaching. But when Mr Ajoy Mukherjee, who was then president of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, was removed unceremoniously from his post, for what I believed was doing the right thing, I felt bad. And when he tried to assemble a new organisation taking Congressmen, I thought I should support him. That brought me into active politics. I continued teaching, of course.

I joined politics in 1966. That was a very turbulent period, because major transitions were taking place in Indian politics. In 1964, Pandit Nehru died. In, 1966 Lal Bahadur Shastri died. Indira Gandhi took over as Prime Minister. There was an acute food shortage and deep economic crisis. There were agitations everywhere, sometimes on food, sometimes on other issues. The Congress party was weakened in this time of turmoil.

I do not know whether there was any link, but a large number of Congressmen and important Congress leaders in states left the party and formed regional outfits, as Ajoy Babu did in West Bengal. Mahamar Prasad, president of Bihar Congress, formed his own outfit. In Orissa, Biju Patnaik formed his own outfit.

Q. Did you always believe that Congress was the party for you?

A. All these (regional) parties had a Congress ideology, Congress constitution. Everything was Congress, except, for electoral purposes, the name was changed.

Q. Who were your role models when you first joined government?

A. In our generation, the role models were Gandhi and Nehru. We revered them. They were venerated personalities. I read almost every speech of Nehru. He made every effort to build the country and take it forward. Sometimes I did not understand why he spoke about certain issues. There was one occasion when Panditji spoke against communalism. I asked my father, why does Panditji speak always against communalism? My father said that in India, one of the biggest problems is communalism. I remember another occasion, when Panditji spoke in Bhakra Nangal after inaugurating a major project. He spoke a great deal on science and technology. Sometimes we could not understand why. My father said he is leading us into the future.

When I joined the Government, apart from Indiraji who was my mentor, some of the other stalwarts who also linked the freedom struggle to administration were Babu Jagjivan Ram, Sardar Swaran Singh, Y.B. Chavan and C. Subramanian. Their role and functioning in the Cabinet greatly influenced me.

Q. You were, for long, an MP in Rajya Sabha-moving to Lok Sabha only in 2004. Why did you switch? Should more politicians contest Lok Sabha elections?

A. I was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1969. After six years, I was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1975. I contested Lok Sabha elections in 1977 but I was defeated from Malda. Then I contested in 1980 from my own district, Birbhum. I still remember when I decided to contest, Mrs Gandhi, who was then Congress president in Opposition, was surprised. She asked me, do you really believe you can win that seat? I said, Madam I am quite confident. She said, I’m sorry but even your wife doesn’t believe you can win this seat! She said, Congress has never won that seat, Pranab. Don’t contest. I said no, we won the seat when my father was the (district) president. She said that was in 1952. We are talking in 1980. And quite literally, after 1952, we have never won that seat until today. So naturally I was defeated. After that defeat I did not contest.

In 2004, I was not very eager to contest but the local Congressmen, particularly Adhir Chowdhury of Murshidabad district, said that if you contest this seat we will win. I gave him a long argument about how I can’t win that seat. But ultimately he insisted and so did other local leaders. I got a huge number of telegrams and fax messages requesting me to contest from Jangipur. Usually, I was entrusted by the party with the national campaign. During every General Elections there was a national campaign committee and invariably I used to chair it from 1984 onwards.

Yes, I do believe that politicians should contest Lok Sabha elections. After all, Nehru made it quite clear that ministers can be appointed from the Rajya Sabha but they should, at the earliest opportunity, seek a mandate through direct election.

Q. Politics in India has become much more competitive. Has the quality of politicians improved or declined?

A. That is a value judgment. Every age has its own brand of politicians. Politics has, of course, become more competitive. The size of the electorate has grown vastly. In the first General Elections, India’s total population was 350 million. The voting age was 21. Around 42 per cent of the population was voters. So you can calculate the average number of voters in each Lok Sabha constituency. Today, we have 1.2 billion people and 700 million people voted at the last General Elections. Next time, it will increase. There are, however, still only 543 territorial constituencies. So the enormity of the number and the difficulty in reaching out to them has increased. It is more laborious and strenuous to build up a campaign. Therefore, you have to depend on the party machinery.

Q. Do you agree that politics has become bitter? How can this change?

A. In India, for a very long period of time until 1989, the Indian electorate gave a decisive verdict in all Lok Sabha elections, a two-third majority more often than not. In 1957 and 1984 they gave a three-fourth majority. So numbers were never an issue. Even when non-Congress parties like the Janata Party came to power in 1977, they got a massive mandate. Bitterness was certainly there, particularly in the 1970s. But that bitterness did not get reflected in the functioning of the House, because for legislation and other purposes, Opposition support was not always needed. Numbers were in favour of the ruling party. Today, it is not like that. Coalition governments have a thin majority. So sometimes you require Opposition support. And if it does not give support, then bitterness appears to be more focused. In parliamentary nuances, I would not say it is animosity. It is opposition.

Q. You were in Opposition between 1996 and 2004, a long period by Congress standards. What is the role of the Opposition?

A. Classically, there are three roles-to expose, to oppose and finally to depose. To expose the failures of the ruling party and then to oppose those policies, and if possible to depose the government. Parliamentary democracy is a very fine instrument and it strikes a very fine balance. To observe the rule of the game is important in this type of system. What is the rule of the game? It is that the majority has got the mandate to rule and the minority has got the mandate to oppose. But nobody has got the mandate to obstruct. My complaint today is that we are not reflecting the mandate given by the people. People have said that as the ruling party, you should rule. I have stated on the floor of Parliament that yes I have the mandate, but it is not absolute. It is limited. You have to carry others with you. We are trying to do that. The Opposition has the mandate to oppose policies if they feel it necessary, but where is the question of obstruction?

Parliament is meant for debate, discussion and finally taking decisions. Everything must be debated. Nowhere can it be justified that a session starts at 11 O’clock and some members come to the well and disrupt it. Then you are not discharging your duty and not allowing others to discharge their duties either. That is not acceptable.

Q. Are there any merits of a coalition government?

A. Of course there are merits. Coalitions are a fact. They are the reality. It is nobody’s wish. But when the mandate is fractured, that is what you get. What is the purpose of General Elections? The purpose is not to elect 543 representatives from 543 territorial constituencies in a disjointed manner. The purpose is to elect a government. Therefore, even if you don’t have a clear majority, you have to form a government. There comes the compulsion of coalition, with like-minded parties on the basis of certain common programmes. Coalition is necessary because you cannot go to General Elections everyday. Coalitions would be redundant if there is a clear majority in favour of any political party or group.

Q. Do smaller parties have a disproportionately large influence on policies?

A. In a multi-party democracy there will always be different views. That is the beauty of democracy. And once, I think I articulated in Parliament, when we were being accused of delaying things, that it is easier to implement policy if we build a consensus.

Q. Of all the various positions you have held in Government, which one do you cherish the most?

A. It’s very difficult to say. When you are in Government for a very long time and different responsibilities are entrusted with you, you have to carry them out. During my ministerial career, I think I have spent the maximum time in finance: Two-and-a-half years as junior minister then three years as Cabinet minister; then again three years as Cabinet minister. That’s eight-and-a-half years in all.

Q. How did it feel becoming finance minister after such a long gap?

A. There was a sea change. When I left this room in 1985-the last day of 1984 actually- the size and volume of Indian economy was so small. And when I came back here on January 24, 2009, I felt like I was coming back to my old home. I had that feeling. I was holding dual charge at the time. I have often held several charges. Between 1991 and 1996, I held deputy chairmanship of Planning Commission, along with commerce and external affairs.

Q. How did you find the time and energy to chair so many GoMs and EGoMs in addition to your ministerial job? Do you ever feel you are neglecting the finance ministry?

A. I had to put in extra effort. I can’t afford to neglect anything. Every assignment is important. I get that energy because I am a village boy. During my school days, I had to travel 10 km everyday. In those days, the system was different. From Class I to IV we could study in the village pathshala. Then we had to appear for a district-level examination. All school students had to pass that and get admitted to Class V. Then we had to study six years to get our matriculation certificate. I did honours in economics and political science. Throughout those years, I walked 10 km every day. There was no road. I walked through paddy fields. That’s how I get my energy.

Q. Is free market capitalism the best economic system the world has?

A. The free market has its own role to play. And that’s why some economists say it is a good servant but a poor master. There should be certain well-developed regulatory mechanisms in place. Why was our banking system not affected because of the global financial crisis of 2008 when some of the leading banks of the world were adversely affected? Perhaps the reason is that we have a well-regulated mechanism in place. But markets should unleash the potential energies of the people and there is no inherent contradiction between that and regulation. We should not swing like a pendulum from one extreme to another. We should strike a balance.

Q. Economic liberalisation began in India in the 1980s. Do you think it was paced well or was it too slow?

A. Very frankly, it is a value judgment. Many people say that had you started in 1978 like China, you could have done much more. So let me go back to the early 1950s. If we had become part of the Marshall plan, we could have advanced like the Asian tigers. Those are value judgments based on hindsight. It is true that we made a modest beginning in 1980, which was systematically expanded from 1991. Take the case of portfolio investment by NRIs. There was hardly any difference between what I presented in my first or second Budget after the Malhotra Committee report and what Dr Manmohan Singh did in 1991. Many things that were started in the 1980s took a big leap in 1991.

Q. Are comparisons with China good or are they an irritant?

A. Comparisons, per se, are good. But our systems are different. Yes, I would like to be on a par with China on social indicators-nutrition, health, education, general standard of life. I would like to have our own standards in certain other areas. I do not grudge when this comparison is made. Every country has its own way, embedded in its culture, ethics and value system. It cannot be implanted elsewhere exactly. Sometimes, we make that mistake. In the 1980s, we were advised, why don’t you follow Reaganomics or Thatcherite economics. We said, yes, there are good points, let’s see how we can fit them in the Indian economy. Every country has its own way of moving forward.

Q. Do you accept the view that the West is in decline and that this century belongs to Asia?

A. The Prime Minister has himself articulated that this is the Asian century and we have to be prepared for it. We have some essential advantages. One advantage is the demographic dividend. For example, in the next 20 years the average age of our population will be around 15 compared to 45 of China and the US and 67 of Europe. The dividend can only be harnessed if they are robust in health, if they are skilled and well-fed. We need to emphasise these three-four areas. Second, draw lessons from the advantages and pitfalls of closer integration like the EU has learnt. We need to build closer cooperation through connectivity, through discussions, through appropriate mechanisms. This century should belong to Asia.

Q. What is the role of youth in politics?

A. The hard fact is that there comes a time in the life of a nation when the youth are asked to actively engage in change. Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and other national leaders strongly urged the youth to join the freedom struggle. They even said don’t study in the British system schools because freedom is most important. When Mujib was giving a call for the liberation of Bangaldesh he, too, was giving a call to students to fight for liberation. I am not going into the merit or demerit of any of this. But I always feel that if the youth join, the quality of politics will improve because they will bring fresh ideas, enthusiasm, dynamism, and a lot of energy, all of which you need as a driving force. It will be beneficial to the system.

Q. How do you rate the youth politicians?

A. There are a large number of bright young people in politics. I look at them and really feel happy that our democratic systems are in safe hands.

Q. What do you do to relax?

A. I wish I had some mechanism and some time to relax (laughs). I read. I like reading. Even now, before I go to bed I read for 20-30 minutes. More often than not, I sleep with the lights on. Someone has to come and switch off the lights. At night, I can’t read while sitting on the chair or table. I stretch out on the bed.

Q. Do you worry about corruption in public life? Is there any solution to it?

A. Of course it is worrying. Major legislative efforts are being made to tackle the problem. Corruption can’t be eradicated merely by saying that it is there. We will have to fight it through appropriate mechanisms, necessary amendments of the law and administrative reforms. Corruption also has a societal aspect. If there is social injunction against corruption, it will be very effective. I have no doubt about that.
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Courtesy: http://indiatoday.intoday.in

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