The Congress lost “political focus”, Sonia Gandhi was “unable to handle the affairs of the party”, Manmohan Singh’s “prolonged absence from Parliament” eroded contact with other parliamentarians, and if he had still been in active politics, the party would not have faced the “drubbing” it received in 2014, according to former president Pranab Mukherjee in his posthumously published memoir, The Presidential Years 2012-2017.
In a wide ranging autobiography, the late Mukherjee — who passed away in 2020 — has documented his years as President, weaving in the personal and the political.
The 2014 mandate
Mukherjee noted that he expected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be the single largest party in the 2014 elections with 195-200 seats — and while most political interlocutors had given him a similar sense, it was only Piyush Goyal — then BJP treasurer — who had said the party would get between 265-280 seats. When the final numbers came in, with BJP winning a comfortable majority on its own, Mukherjee writes, “I was greatly relieved over the decisive mandate but also disappointed at my one-time party’s performance. It was difficult to believe that the Congress had managed to win just 44 seats…I feel the party failed to recognise the end of its charismatic leadership.”
His two PMs
In his assessment of the two Prime Ministers Mukherjee worked with, the late president noted that Manmohan Singh had “determination…a strong sense of propriety…steely will power” and documented his long relationship with the former PM.
Mukherjee said he had a clear understanding of his role as President and had resolved not to cross the limits imposed on him, but on one occasion, asked Singh about an ordinance that his government was bringing. “Sensing my disquiet, the PM spoke to his minister, who then informed me that the government had decided to withdraw the ordinance”.
On Modi, Mukherjee said that his approach to maintaining cordial ties came from his belief in the parliamentary form of government and that Modi had received a decisive mandate — and that both knew how to manage those differences, “without bringing them out in the public”.
The late president said PM Modi had not consulted him prior to the announcement of demonetisation in 2016, but believed that the criticism that the PM should have engaged in consultations was unwarranted. “Demonetisation could not have been done with prior consultation because the suddenness and surprise, absolutely necessary for such announcements, would have been lost after such a process.”
But after addressing the nation, the PM visited Mukherjee and said he had three objectives — tackling black money, fighting corruption, and containing terror financing. Mukherjee said that four years after demonetisation, one thing could be stated — the multiple objectives of the decision have not been met.
He then recounts how this was not new — and Mukherjee had sent a note on demonetisation in the early 1970s to the Prime Minister’s Office. Indira Gandhi then rejected the suggestion, “pointing out that a large part of the economy was not yet fully monetised and a substantial part of it was in the informal sector”.
In his assessment of PM Modi’s handling of foreign policy, Mukherjee noted, “One could expect the unexpected from Modi because he had come with no ideological foreign policy baggage.” But the late president did not agree with all his steps — in particular, the PM’s 2015 stopover in Lahore, terming it “unnecessary and uncalled for”.
On China, Mukherjee said on his visit to the country in 2016, at the formal banquet, he and President Xi Jinping had an hour-long discussion — for most part without an interpreter though one was present — with Xi asking questions about functioning of the Indian government, the constitutional framework and implementation of policies. The only time he sought an interpreter was when Mukherjee discussed the McMahon Line. “After the discussion, (the then foreign secretary), S Jaishankar rushed to me and asked if anything important had been discussed. I told him the only important thing was that one had to revisit the story of India’s Constitution and its functioning since the 50s.”
Mukherjee, who acquired a reputation for rejecting mercy petitions of convicts sentenced to death, also wrote of the pain and anguish while taking these decisions. “The president is not the punishing authority…the president is the last resort”. He would take more than a week to read the case history and court judgments, but not take more than three weeks to dispose off a file.
In an oblique criticism of his predecessors, Mukherjee noted that APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil left a large number of cases pending, with the former hardly disposing off any petition and the latter granting clemency to 34 convicts and rejecting just three petitions. “I rejected 30 mercy pleas involving nearly 40 convicts…I saw no point in keeping such files pending.”