The Congress’s failure to recognise the end of its charismatic leadership was among the many reasons for its 2014 Lok Sabha polls defeat, according to former president Pranab Mukherjee who felt lack of extraordinary leaders reduced the establishment to a “government of averages”.
Mr Mukherjee made these comments in his memoir “The Presidential Years, 2012-2017” which he wrote before his death last year. The book released on Tuesday.
He also wrote that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not discussed the issue of demonetisation with him prior to his announcement on November 8, 2016 but it did not surprise him as suddenness is absolutely necessary for such announcements.
In the book, Mr Mukherjee mentioned that on the day of the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he directed his aide-de-camp to keep him informed of the trends every half an hour.
When the results were announced in the evening, he 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. The Congress is a national institution interlinked with people’s lives. Its future is always a concern of every thinking individual,” he wrote in the book, published by Rupa Publications.
The former Congress leader and Union minister attributed this defeat to many reasons.
“I feel the party failed to recognise the end of its charismatic leadership. Tall leaders like Pandit Nehru ensured that India, unlike Pakistan, survived and developed into a strong and stable nation. Sadly, such extraordinary leaders are not there anymore, reducing the establishment to a government of averages,” he wrote.
According to Mr Mukherjee, when he looked back on his years as president, he derived satisfaction not only from the fact that he followed the rule book in letter and spirit in dealing with governments and issues of the day, but also because he never veered from the constitutional parameters that have been laid down for an Indian head of state.
He wrote he had very cordial relations with Prime Minister Modi during his tenure.
“However, I did not hesitate to give my advice on matters of policy during our meetings. There were several occasions when he echoed concerns that I had voiced. I also believe that he has managed to grasp the nuances of foreign policy quickly,” the book said.
Mr Mukherjee’s approach to maintaining cordial relations with PM Modi was rooted in the fact that “I believe in the parliamentary form of government and its principle”.
“Modi had received a decisive mandate from the people to administer the country. Administrative powers are vested in the Council of Ministers, which the PM heads. Therefore, I did not breach my jurisdiction. Whenever tricky occasions arose, the issues were resolved,” he wrote.
“At an event in which PM Modi released a book and I was present, I remarked that it was not that I did not have any differences with him, but that both of us knew how to manage those differences, without bringing them out in public,” he added.
However, Mr Mukherjee lamented that the NDA government, during its first term of 2014-19, failed in its primary responsibility to ensure the smooth and proper functioning of Parliament.
“I attribute the acrimonious exchanges between the Treasury and Opposition benches to the arrogance and inept handling by the government. But the Opposition is not without blame either. It had also behaved irresponsibly,” he wrote.
According to Mr Mukherjee, the mere physical presence of the prime minister in Parliament makes a tremendous difference to the functioning of this institution.
“Whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh, each of these former PMs made their presence felt on the floor of the House.
“PM Modi, now in his second term, must take inspiration from his predecessors and provide visible leadership, through his enhanced presence in Parliament to avoid situations that had precipitated the parliamentary crisis we witnessed in the first term,” the book said.
PM Modi, Mr Mukherjee said, must listen to the dissenting voices and speak more often in Parliament, adding he must use it as a forum to disseminate his views to convince the Opposition and inform the nation.
On foreign relations, Mr Mukherjee felt that PM Modi’s stopover in Lahore was “unnecessary and uncalled for, given the conditions that prevailed” in India-Pakistan relations.
“It was evident that one could expect the unexpected from Modi, because he had come with no ideological foreign policy baggage. He was to continue with these surprises: he made a sudden and unscheduled stop at Lahore in December 2015 to greet his then Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the latter’s birthday; and he initiated an annual informal summit with the Chinese president – one was held at Wuhan in China in 2018 and the other, more recently, at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu in 2019.”
On PM Modi not discussing about demonetisation with him before announcing it, Mr Mukherjee wrote: “I am of the firm opinion that 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.”
“Therefore, I was not surprised when he did not discuss the issue with me prior to making the public announcement. It also fitted in with his style of making dramatic announcements,” he said.
However, after delivering his address to the nation, PM Modi visited Mr Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan and explained to him the rationale behind the decision.
“He desired an explicit support from me as a former finance minister of the country. I pointed out to him that while it was a bold step, it may lead to temporary slowdown of the economy. We would have to be extra careful to alleviate the suffering of the poor in the medium to long term,” Mukherjee said.
“Since the announcement was made in a sudden and dramatic manner, I asked the PM if he had ensured that adequate currency was there for exchange,” he added.