remains in the news even after the end of his term and a long innings in public life. His book `Coalition Years’ has trained the spotlight on the major events that shaped UPA governments. In a free-wheeling conversation with
Mukherjee spoke on his stint in government as well as major issues he dealt with during his presidency. Excerpts…
You have had such a long political life. Is there any incident that stands out?
To my mind it is Bangladesh, the birth of a nation of 12 or 13 crore people in 1971. I still remember that Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, made a short statement in both Houses saying “I am happy to inform the House that Pakistan army has surrendered to the joint command of the Indian army and the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini and now Dhaka is the free capital of free Bangladesh”. That is the most significant event since I joined public life.
Was it a pronouncement on the two-nation theory?
That will be an over-simplification of the whole issue because the two-nation theory was challenged at the very time of its pronouncement. It (the partition of Pakistan) once again established that mere religion cannot be the basis of a State. There are many other factors: religion, language, customs, culture and social systems.
Do you think that after the 1971 win, India could have settled the Kashmir issue to its satisfaction?
Indira Gandhi took the wisest decision by declaring the unilateral ceasefire. If India had not declared unilateral ceasefire, there would have been expansion of the conflict. It would have engulfed both India and Pakistan because America was bent on protecting the unity of western Pakistan after they had lost the hope on eastern Pakistan. Soviet Russia also did not want the war to be extended.
Do you think diplomatically more could have been done?
Whatever had to be done was done. There was the Shimla agreement, and it was agreed that it is a bilateral issue, it was agreed that through dialogue the issues would be solved. All these are part and parcel of the Shimla agreement. But if you do not keep your word, there is no instrument that can compel you to do it.
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During the launch of your book,
Manmohan Singh said+
you were better suited to be Prime Minister.
Doctor sahib (Manmohan Singh) is always very nice. Surely, he was a much better PM. I had said it at that time, and much later also, that doctor sahib was the best PM among the available Congressmen. I could not qualify myself to be the PM because I have no means of communication with the vast masses of the people because of my deficiency in Hindi. Nobody who cannot communicate in the language of the masses, can be the PM, apart from other political reasons. Doctor sahib was the right choice of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Actually, we expected Sonia Gandhi to be PM. Votes were sought in her name.She campaigned extensively and we got around 147 seats. She was elected as the leader of the party and she was also elected as leader of the UPA. All UPA partners -RJD, DMK, TRS, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and NCP -agreed that she should provide the leadership and she should have become prime minister. But as she refused to be PM, there was no other choice but doctor sahib.
What were the political reasons that prevented you from becoming PM?
The state I represented was under Left rule for 34 years. If a leader is going to be PM, should not his state not ruled by his own party? Doctor sahib did not have that disadvantage -Congress was then ruling Punjab.
In your book, there is a mention of your meeting with Sonia Gandhi in 2012 in the context of candidates for President?
Various names were discussed and, then, Doctor sahib’s name was proposed. I thought she may give a surprise just as she surprised (everyone) by not becoming PM in 2004 because Congressmen did not accept that. So that was never a serious issue, it was never considered.
There are some references that at one point of time you had told Rajiv Gandhi that you did not want to be the PM?
There was no letter or anything like that. We were travelling together in Contai in West Bengal (in October 1984). We did not know that Indira Gandhi had been killed. We got a message that the PM had been assaulted, and had to leave for Delhi. We were driving- myself, Ghani Khan, Rajiv and one of his security officers was there. Rajiv was monitoring BBC news through his transistor. At Kolkata airport he went into the cockpit and came back after some time confirming that Indira Gandhi had been killed. Balram Jakhar, who was the speaker was there, Shyamlal Yadav, deputy chairman Rajya Sabha, Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Uma Shankar Dixit and Mrs Shiela Dixit came. I myself suggested to Rajiv that he should take over. The Congress parliamentary board met. It also did not have the full members -only two members were there, myself and PV Narasimha Rao, Kamlapati (Tripathy) and Margatham Chandrashekhar, two other members of CWC came later. With that resolution we went to Zail Singh and he himself decided and communicated the decision.
When you demitted office, Narendra Modi thanked you profusely. How were your relations with him?
You cannot know that because this is something which is highly classified; even a court is prevented from looking into it. I have no intention of bringing out the relationship between Presidents and Prime Ministers even in the fourth volume (of my memoirs) that I am writing. That is not desirable. However, I have had excellent relations with him because he won the elections.
Did the May 2014 results surprise you?
I was not in active politics then. I will give credit to one person. Senior BJP leaders who met me offered estimates varying from 180 to 200 seats. However, Piyush Goyal told me not less than 265-270 seats for BJP. He spoke to me during the campaign. I had a small side table where I used to sit, there was a notepad – a silver framed notepad. I used to put the names and their estimates. I had names of 15-20 leaders from different political parties.
Does the stability of the government play a role in the decision to invite a party?
Of course. India has 800 million voters, 543 constituencies spread over 3.3 million square kilometres with several lakh polling booths. Is it a matter of joke that today you hold the elections, there is no majority and you dissolve it and order another election? If any president does that, it will be utter irresponsibility. A president has no option but to choose -he may be right, he may be wrong -a government to be formed. If a single party gets a majority in the elections and if that majority party elects somebody, the president has no option but to invite him to form the government.
Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote an article after you demitted office as President that you should be the spiritual guide for the Congress party. What are your views?
I can always give advice but to actively participate in political party, no President has done it. Rajendra Pras ad or Shankar Dayal Sharma were Congress presidents, so they also did not think of joining politics. One can give advice, but it has to be sought.
Will your advice be available only to Congress or also to other political parties interested in seeking your counsel?
It will be available to all.
In one of your interviews you said when the Congress won 200 seats it behaved as it had 280.
I said that Congressmen started thinking they had absolute majority because in 1999, Congress got only 112 seats. In 2009, Congress had 200-plus seats and they thought they were in absolute majority. But it was a coalition. It was difficult and it was our failure as leaders of the party.
Generally, coalition governments have another deficiency. They are largely dominated by regional parties and these regional parties are based on states because there are hardly any regional parties, which have a presence in more than one state. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile regional interests with national interests.
There is a deficiency in the coalition system that a PM does not enjoy absolute authority of including his colleagues (as minister) unlike in case of a single-party majority government.There may be political compulsions even there. It may be difficult for any prime minister to exclude Pranab Mukherjee or P Chidambaram, that’s different. That’s political compulsion.
What do you think went wrong for UPA-2 that resulted in the disappointing mandate?
What was wrong? We did not get votes, that’s why we lost!
Will your counsel be available to all political parties, all the stakeholders if they come to you?
Yes. But there have to be issues.
One of the issues which comes up between presidents and government is promulgation of ordinances. How did you approach this issue?
During UPA’s time, I pointed out how could you bring an ordinance when you had yourself introduced the bill the other day and recommended that it be considered by the standing committee? And, today you are talking of an ordinance? Where is the urgency? Ordinance is generally dependent on urgency. The one qualification which is invariably required is urgency. It cannot wait till Parliament session is called. Then, why an ordinance? And, they (UPA government) withdrew it. In one ordinance (proposed by NDA), there was a huge loss (of revenue) for the government, they had to pay a huge amount of money to somebody. Then, I told the government you have to get it done otherwise next time I am not going to approach this ordinance and it was passed by both the Houses. Ordinance is a problem.
The ordinance (under UPA) was brought to negate the judgment of a High Court on disqualification. I was not seeking the merit of the ordinance, I was seeking the logic of the procedural part of the ordinance. The second one was Enemy Property Act, I think (under NDA)
So, the president relies on the opinion of constitutional experts and his own experience in public life in dealing with tricky things?
Sometimes, presidents have to. Sometimes, presidents have to write notings on the file. Invariably, all presidents, including me, take the advice of constitutional experts. Invariably, I used to call the attorney general and take his advice.
The UPA-2 suffered from policy paralysis but the retrospective taxation issue was one which was widely criticised. What was the rationale in opting for this?
I still feel there is lack of perspec tive on the retrospective taxation amendment. My first question is: if it is considered so evil to the econo my why has not been amended? Six years have passed. Every year, the finance minister gets the opportunity to amend the Finance Act. It is not intended to have taxation at ran dom retrospectively. What is a law? Every Act has an intention. It has a purpose. This intention and purpose are explained in a bill and you find in the statement of objects and reason. Thereafter, the legal experts put the language to express that intent and purpose. Now, sometimes it may happen, when the executive puts this language, this language may be interpreted (differently) by the Supreme Court and their interpretation is final. Then, what happens? Then, the executive amends the language, but not necessarily the object. The income tax department had issued a series of notices to Vodafone. The department said `you are entering into a transaction this is subject to tax so be careful while entering into this transaction’.When they entered the transaction we said `we are going impose taxes’, and then we imposed taxes. When they protested, we said where have you paid the tax? You tell us if you have paid taxes in your country of origin or country of activity. Then, when the Bombay High Court judgment supporting the interpretation the ministry, came, many people paid the taxes.Now, if we would not have done this retrospective amendment we would had to pay all of them back, which was impossible. In principle, every government has this right (to protect revenues) , that’s why no finance minister is changing this. A few lakh peo ple pay income tax but each and everyone pays excise duty. How would you refund it? This is an inherent power, sovereign power of the government as they have the power to impose taxation and they have the power over sovereign funds. Tax is a sovereign fund.Whose money will we return? In order to avoid these questions we decided on this.
You have referred to an incident that days ahead to the introduction of the Finance Bill in Parliament in 2012, several colleagues including one with a high-ranking Vodafone official approached you to reconsider your move to move amend the laws. Can you throw some light on this?
Before the passage of the Finance Bill you receive representations from a large number of people. When somebody makes a representation, it is for the finance minister to accept it or reject it. If he accepts it, he himself moves an amendment in the Finance Bill and if he rejects it he does not. I stood by what I did.
Some of your party colleagues seem to suggest that post-2012 the trajectory of the economy changed.Do you agree with the perception that the economy improved after 2012?
What do you mean?
During your stint as finance minister, you provided a fiscal stimulus. Do you think there is a case for providing a stimulus given the slowdown in the economy?
The global financial crisis took place in 2008. We were feeling the pinch but we thought it may be temporary . When I presented the interim
budget, then several industrialists and economists told me the situation was serious and we required some corrective measures.I gave a huge stimulus. Before that two packages were announced, one by Chidambaram sometime in November, then by Doctor sahib. Mine was the third package, and it was the largest.
I have not studied the present situation so I won’t be able to answer it.Whether fiscal stimulus is to be given is a very major decision and it is not somebody’s off the cuff remark. It has to go through various analyses and preparations.
After you assumed charge as President there was the issue of mercy petitions. Can you tell us what prompted your decisions?
Personally, I am against the contin ation of the death sentence. But my oint is very simple: it is not me, even s President, it is for the lawmakers to ecide whether they will keep it in the ndian Penal Code or not. They have ept it, the judges have pronounced udgments and then you expect me to everse that? Why should I do it? No eath sentence, unless it is confirmed y the Supreme Court, can come to the resident.
What authority do I have when the ession judge is going through the vidence, the High Court is also going hrough the evidence, the Supreme ourt is going through the judgments nd confirming it and it is recom ended by the home minister as govrnment to president? hy should I not ccept it? Remove it from the statute ooks and it will be alright.
–Diwakar , Rajeev Deshpande, Subodh Ghildiyal, Sidhartha and Surojit Gupta
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