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A year as president,a lifetime as politician

Pranab Mukherjee completes a year in Rashtrapati Bhavan

Written by Swaraj Thapa | New Delhi | July 25, 2013 4:57:27 am

President Pranab Mukherjee entered Rashtrapati Bhawan a year ago acutely conscious of the limitations that the Constitution encircles him within,binding him to the advice of the council of ministers headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

That red line,however,could not deter him from creatively crafting for himself a role that has redefined his persona and in the process transformed Rashtrapati Bhawan from a symbolic address or even a retirement home into an active political hub. You can keep politics away from Rashtrapati Bhawan,but you cannot keep Pranab Mukherjee away from politics. The veteran who could not make it as prime minister can boast a political insight and experience that are valued by everyone across the political spectrum.

Sample this. When the government sent the dates for the budget session earlier this year,it had actually failed to do its homework properly. Government managers failed to factor in the fact that the finance bill has to be passed within 75 days of its introduction,failure of which would result in a constitutional crisis. It was left to President Mukherjee,a veritable encyclopedia on parliamentary procedures,to gently point this out,leading to the government taking corrective steps.

Another instance. Just after Mukherjee took over,senior BJP leader L K Advani wrote on his blog last August appealing to the president to initiate electoral reforms aimed at holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies every five years with fixed terms. Advani argued that the system had been followed from 1952 for the next four elections,after which they got delinked. President Mukherjee made a considerable effort to research the subject and seek expert opinion before conveying to Advani that it was not doable as it resulted in the opposition forfeiting its right to move a no-confidence motion.

Another time last winter,when the youth erupted in rage at Rajpath over the gangrape of a young girl in a moving bus in Delhi,President Mukherjee engaged in a telephonic conversation with the prime minister,where he suggested immediate administrative measures that the government could take to assuage sentiments and prevent similar mishaps in future.

That episode,in fact,was President Mukherjee’s first test in exercising restraint. Mukherjee fought with himself over whether he should meet the protesters at his door or even issue a statement condemning the incident,conscious of the implications that his actions would carry for the government. He finally decided against it and waited for the government to step in.

But more than the weight of his own actions,President Mukherjee at that point was vastly troubled by the eruption of youth anger against the government. With his acute sense of history,Mukherjee reminded some of those who visited him then that such an eruption could be dangerous; he likened it to the Brahmo Samaj uprising of the early 19th century. Student protests should never be taken lightly,he argued,pointing out the change Assam underwent because of such a movement.

After the upsurge in the streets ended,President Mukherjee did not let go any opportunity to remind the government of its duty to ensure the security of women. From his Christmas and New Year’s message to the nation to speeches in convocations that he addressed,he underlined the need for gender sensitivity.

He has also used his speeches to send out messages to the judiciary,the executive and the political class. While addressing the Madras and Calcutta high courts and at the national conference on mediation organised by the Supreme Court,he called upon judges to avoid judicial overreach and maintain the delicate balance of power as provided in the Constitution. In speeches at the Kerala,Karnataka,Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu assemblies,Mukherjee highlighted the need to avoid disruption of proceedings and pay greater attention to financial matters and lawmaking.

Given the nature of the office and the limits imposed by the Constitution,a broad assessment of the 12 months gone by reaffirms that the presidency itself has not undergone any major transformation. The constant flow everyday of eminent visitors who include senior ministers,politicians and scholars,however,does indicate that Rashtrapati Bhawan has acquired a new prominence. Even Sundays are not holidays with the president willingly meeting visitors.

In the last 12 months,he has interacted on a personal level with almost everyone of importance be it from the government,opposition or those in between,often late into the night,as he has done for decades. He usually meets them in his family wing study that is now adorned with seven Jamini Roy paintings,purposefully retrieved and restored from various nooks and corners of the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhawan. From Prime Minister Singh to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi,Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to BJP veteran Advani and CPM general secretary Prakash Karat,everyone has visited Rashtrapati Bhawan to engage in political and intellectual conversation. It’s another matter that on some occasions he has had to ask his secretary Omita Paul to sit as an “interpreter” in meetings with politicians such as Mulayam Singh Yadav,excusing himself for his poor grasp of Hindi.

Perhaps the most testing moments for President Mukherjee in the last one year have been when he signed on the death warrants of Ajmal Kasab,Afzal Guru and other convicts. “Having been in the government for so long,hesitation in decision-making is not something you can identify him with,” says an aide. “He has only played by the book. He has done what was expected of him from the government,” says another.

Yet,Mukherjee did not merely sign on the dotted line. He meticulously pored over each file,spending several days in going through individual cases and reading the entire trial court proceedings and settling any doubts he had by seeking information from the states,before taking the final decision.

He does,of course,miss the political action,concede aides. For instance,when a parliament session is on,the television in his room is kept switched on as he follows the proceedings. He even gets worked up when parliament gets to a standstill,if only out of sheer habit. On Wednesdays,when his office receives agenda copies for the cabinet meeting of the following day,he studies them in detail.

But he has also found time to pursue other interests. He has been watching films,enjoying cultural programmes and,of course,reading books. He is more relaxed now and his aides smilingly assert that he has not lost his temper for the last several months.

The year ahead,however,could throw the biggest test for him,especially if the general elections throw up a hung house and the role of the president becomes the focal point in the formation of the government.

AAM ADMI PRESIDENT

President Mukherjee believes Rashtrapati Bhawan belongs to the nation and the people at large.

Dropped honorific “His Excellency” when people address the president and encouraged governors to follow suit.

Decided to have most functions within Rashtrapati Bhawan to prevent traffic disruption and inconvenience to people during president’s movement on the roads.

Removed protocol and security restrictions for events in Rashtrapati Bhawan for invitees interacting with the president.

Visited 23 states/UTs in last 12 months including J&K and five NE states.

Hosted conference of vice-chancellors of central universities in Rashtrapati Bhawan after 10 years.

Initiated innovation clubs in universities.

Gave complete makeover to Durbar Hall. It is now being used regularly for state functions.

Gave makeover to the library,restoring old and rare books dating back up to 1795 AD.

Rashtrapati Bhawan tours opened for public thrice a week with online booking.

Change of guard ceremony once a week opened to the public.

Received 39 foreign dignitaries and visited Mauritius and Bangladesh.

Visited 36 educational institutions in the country.

Started programme for interns in Rashtrapati Bhawan.

E-governance within Rashtrapati Bhawan. E-invites for cultural functions. RFID tags for all art objects,heritage furniture. Use of social media to document presidential appointments.

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