In June 2011, the then UPA-II government’s decision to send two of its senior cabinet ministers, Pranab Mukherjee and Kapil Sibal, to the Delhi airport to meet Baba Ramdev to dissuade him from launching a fast had come in for criticism. Six years later, Mukherjee has admitted that it was a “misjudgement” on his part and he “should not have done it”.
Speaking at the Express Adda on Saturday, the former President, while responding to a question on the issue, said since the UPA government was already facing “embarrassment” due to Anna Hazare’s agitation, they wanted to “nip it (Ramdev’s protest) in the bud”.
“I think myself and Kapil Sibal went there (to meet Ramdev)… senior cabinet ministers went. The meeting was not that… it was simply political reasons. I thought that we are already having an agitation from Anna Hazare. That agitation is causing some problem and embarrassment to the government… If it (Ramdev’s fast) could be nipped in the bud,” he said.
“So I had some contact with some people. I am not mentioning his name. He advised me that if you talk to him (Ramdev), and if you request him before he comes and meets his followers in Delhi, then I have talked to him, he will listen to you,” recalled Mukherjee.
“But I told him that my problem is I am not fluent in Hindi, so how could I talk to him. Then he told me that you take somebody who will interpret for you. That was the reason why I took Kapil Sibal with me… But nonetheless, later on I found that it was my misjudgement. I should not have done it. I told them, and I have no hesitation to tell it right now, that sometimes we make mistakes,” he said.
Mukherjee was then the Finance Minister. He and Sibal, then HRD Minister, met Ramdev, who flew into the capital in a chartered jet from Ujjain, on June 1 and discussed issues raised by him, including bringing back black money stashed abroad.
But the talks failed and the yoga guru decided to go ahead with his protest at Ramlila Maidan from June 4. He began his fast but by midnight, the security forces swooped down at the maidan. Ramdev was later sent back to Haridwar, where he sat on a hunger strike.
The entire episode — how the government first went out of its way to talk to the yoga guru to dissuade him from holding a protest against the government, and then cracked down on him days later — contributed to the turning tide of public opinion against the UPA government.
On the role of people’s movements in a constitutional democracy like India, Mukherjee said: “Alert and vigilance of the people are most important. So far as Anna movement… I had the opportunity of dealing with him. But I look at the problem from a totally different angle. Somebody shared with me, and this is not my opinion right now after four, five years have passed… but even at that time, while giving an interview to the BBC… I said that this is another manifestation of the Indian people and the people’s movement.”
“They are not satisfied by simply electing their legislators. Sometimes, they may feel that they may participate in the legislation and prepare a brief and ask the parliamentarians to endorse it… That is Anna’s movement. He said I have prepared a Lokpal Bill… He said these should be accepted by Parliament. It was not possible because there were certain limitations. But the fact remains that the urge of the people, demand of the people is emerging in new directions, from new areas. So, this is a sign of awareness of the people’s consciousness, their activism. And we shall have to recognise and find an appropriate place in our system. It requires lot of exercise… In a particular way, we dealt with the subject and tackled the problem. But the question remains that, always in a growing society, different situations will emerge and will come from time to time,” said Mukherjee.
Speaking on his term as President, he said he would never reveal what transpired between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but added: “It is not that we did not have any differences. We had, but we knew how to keep the differences within ourselves, and I do hope I will keep it within ourselves.”
He said the presence of a strong opposition is essential for a successful parliamentary democracy, and reiterated that Indians can be argumentative but not intolerant.
Asked to give five lines of advice to resurrect the Congress, Mukherjee said although he was a Congress activist, he had given up that role when he became the President. “Therefore, I am not going to make any suggestions. It is for the Congressmen… Congress was (there) before I was born, Congress will continue to stay without me, and Congress, if it has disconnected with people, will have to derive its strength from people. Congress and people, if they are totally interconnected, they will continue. Electoral reversal may be there here and there,” he said.
Responding to another question, he said a political party, like individuals, also has its “ups and downs in life”. He said the BJP, which had two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, could form a successful coalition government less than 15 years later. “So electoral verdict, to get less number of seats or series of defeats… in a small time frame of five years, is no judgement about the future prospect of the political party. We shall have to wait,” he said.
“If a political party, if it has its ideological moorings, participants may be very active, may not be active. But their support base remains. Sometimes hidden, sometimes inoperative, but it remains. And at the appropriate situation, it gets activated and the party redraws its strength. And also depends on the political situation,” said Mukherjee, adding that he had seen “one of the depressed phases” of the Congress after the defeat in 1977, and saw how the demoralised lot could be re-energised.
On whether he would return to active politics, Mukherjee said activism within the framework of a party was not possible. “That is not possible and that is also not desirable. Frankly speaking, I am a bit precedent-minded. You may call it a bit bureaucratic mindset… I do not find any precedent of any former President who actively participated in politics with a party affiliation after his retirement,” he said.
Asked about his opinion on the emphasis of nationalism and aspects like performative nationalism, Mukherjee said: “Nationalism based on broad humanism, universalism… should be the essence of Indian civilisation, and that is the core of our values of civilisation and we should respect that.”
He said “the concept of nationalism, if you are not very careful and indulge in narrow interpretation of it, it will lead to sectarianism and what disaster it can bring upon humanity can be illustrated by the events of the ‘30s and ‘40s… So one has to be very careful about it. And this is a very powerful instrument, very emotive… it can rouse your emotions beyond control.”
Asked whether nationalism has become more rigid, he said: “I don’t think so. Because I have strong faith and belief in the goodness and effectiveness of Indian masses. Because I have seen how mighty and powerful they can be… When they decide, they do not decide in isolation. As if some telepathic message (is there) between the masses of India…”
Citing the example of how India gave a decisive verdict in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he said: “I do feel we can keep our faith in them and always engage ourselves with them… we will find the path.” Quoting Rabindranath Tagore, he said: “Don’t get scared. The boatman who is at the helm, he will take you to the destination. And our Indian people, they will take us to the destination.”