Pranab Mukherjee: The best prime minister India never had?

The only causes Mukherjee served were not those of the Indian public, but of those in power.

People pray in front of a painting of India's former President Pranab Mukherjee, in Kolkata, September 1, 2020 [File: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

Former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, or as the Indian media often described him, “the best prime minister India never had”, died on August 31.

Before serving as president between 2012 and 2017, Mukherjee held multiple important portfolios, including that of the minister of finance, defence and foreign affairs, for three separate prime ministers.

In a political career spanning over half a century, mostly as a high-ranking member of the Indian National Congress, Mukherjee enjoyed admiration and respect from across the political spectrum and came to be known as a successful “consensus builder”.

As a result, following his death, almost all prominent Indian politicians publicly expressed their grief and praised his contributions to the country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from the rival nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said Mukherjee “left an indelible mark on the development trajectory of our nation”. Mukherjee’s successor, current President Ram Nath Kovind, defined him as a “colossus in public life” who served the country with the “spirit of a sage”.

The Indian and international media also marked Mukherjee’s passing with sweeping appraisal, describing him as the “indispensable man of Indian politics”, a politician for “all seasons”, and an “outstanding personality”.

The many reports and editorials that were published in the aftermath of his death cast Mukherjee as an all-round “great public servant”, with the only blot in his political career, if any, being his participation in the 1975-77 national emergency that gagged the Indian press and stifled all opposition voices.

If greatness is to be measured by his loyalty to the influential Gandhi family, or his diplomatic and strategic prowess through which he managed to sail the Indian National Congress (and the Gandhi family) through several tumultuous periods, sure, he was a great servant to the specific causes of that party-family nexus, but his greatness stops right there.

Truth is, there are many more skeletons in the former president’s closet, beyond his participation in the devastating emergency. From being one of the founding fathers of crony capitalism in India to being involved in multiple corruption scandals, he was just another Indian politician. To that extent, the much-discussed “greatness” of Mukherjee, lies not in his service to the nation, but in the shrewdness with which he was able to cover his tracks.

Proving his loyalty to the Gandhi family

Mukherjee was a college teacher in West Bengal state before being elected to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, in 1969. Soon after entering politics, he became a protege of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was appointed deputy minister of industrial development in 1973.

After swiftly becoming a senior Congress figure with the help of Indira Gandhi, he showed his loyalty to the prime minister by choosing to look the other way when she controversially declared a state of national emergency in June 1975.

Throughout the emergency that lasted for some 21 months and left a dark mark on India’s democracy, Mukherjee demonstrated his unflinching loyalty to the Gandhi family, even if it amounted to forging (PDF) official documents. Most worryingly, he turned a blind eye to the excesses of the prime minister’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi, who spearheaded a gruesome campaign to forcefully sterilise poor men.

In the years after the end of the emergency, still determined to protect the Gandhi family, Mukherjee followed Indira Gandhi’s lead in refusing to give testimony to the Shah Commission, which was tasked with inquiring into the excesses of the period. As a result, the commission failed to complete a thorough investigation, and all prominent leaders of the party, including Mukherjee, came out clean, at least in a legal sense.

After a brief period in opposition, the Congress came back to govern the nation in 1980. Mukherjee contested the election from West Bengal and suffered a decisive loss, and yet, he was appointed as a minister in Indira Gandhi’s new cabinet, as well as the leader of the upper house of the parliament. This was, undoubtedly, the reward for his loyalty to Indira Gandhi during the era of emergency.

Mukherjee’s return to power marked the beginning of a new chapter in his political career. As someone who has the ear of the prime minister, he not only started to cement himself as an indispensable player in India’s political scene, but also played a primary role in the birth and normalisation of crony capitalism in India.

Mukherjee, Ambani, and the birth of cronyism in India

Journalist Hamish McDonald, in his book The Polyester Prince, explains in detail how Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries Limited, taking advantage of the Congress government’s new commerce and finance policies, built a financial empire in India between 1980 and 1984.

That the government’s new policies helped Ambani was no coincidence. In 1979-80, Ambani supported Indira Gandhi’s election campaign. After taking office, Gandhi put her most loyal man, Mukherjee, in charge of the ministries which could help returning the favour to Ambani.

Mukherjee served as commerce minister between 1980 and 1982, and as finance minister between 1982 and 1984. During both his tenures, he repeatedly implemented policies that favoured Ambani and supported his company’s rapid expansion.

The irregularities on the part of the ministries headed by Mukherjee did not go unnoticed. In fact, investigative reporters regularly exposed how Mukherjee set up new policies or manipulated existing ones to favour the Ambani group. In 1983, for example, a prominent Indian daily, The Telegraph, published an article headlined “Pranab Mukherjee: The Minister of Finance or Reliance?”.

The opposition parties in the Indian Parliament picked this up and brought a breach of privilege motion against Mukherjee. The motion, however, was eventually rejected by parliament, which was then dominated by the Congress party.

Despite Mukherjee’s party closing ranks to protect him from scrutiny, journalists continued their investigations into his controversial policies. S Gurumurthy, a prominent journalist with the Indian Express, for example, conducted an incredibly detailed investigation into various matters related to the government’s role in Ambani’s rise, including the shady companies that invested in Reliance under the non-Resident Indian Investment scheme introduced by Mukherjee during his tenure as finance minister.

Gurumurthy’s investigation suggested that Mukherjee’s policies were complicit in paving the way for Reliance Industries Limited to hold repatriable assets overseas worth $650m, which was about 15 percent of India’s foreign exchange reserves at that time.

Despite these damning reports, however, Mukherjee has never been subject to a criminal investigation for his suspicious conduct during this period.

Mukherjee, of course, was not the first Indian minister accused of corruption or helping an industrialist generate black money. The ties between powerful politicians and capitalists in India were known long before his tenure as finance minister.

Mukherjee, however, was the first politician to successfully formalise corruption and crony capitalism in India.

Indian National Congress was already a hub of corruption before Mukherjee’s rise to power. However, back then, corrupt acts of politicians were often straightforward and crude. Very few in India’s highest political circles had the ability to hide corruption behind policy manipulations, constitutional provisions and overreaching legal interpretations.

During his time, first as commerce minister and then as finance minister, Mukherjee set a precedent on how to be corrupt yet not be indicted. He showed how a politician can help friendly capitalists without leaving a trail of illegality that could eventually lead to his and his allies’ conviction.

The model of cronyism Mukherjee systematised not only allowed Ambani and other industrialists supportive of his party to rise to prominence and gather massive wealth, but also provided a blueprint for future Indian politicians to form similar relationships with industrialists without facing any legal consequences.

The quiet years

Mukherjee lost his position as finance minister and was expelled from the Indian National Congress after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who at the time saw Mukherjee as a threat to his power, became prime minister.

Mukherjee formed his own party, but later reconciled with Rajiv Gandhi and returned to the Congress in 1989. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, Mukherjee joined the cabinets of his successors, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, but failed to gain the same level of influence he had under Indira Gandhi.

From 1996 to 2004, the Congress party failed to garner enough support to form a government. With his party out of power, Mukherjee also lost his prominence and remained in the shadows until the 2004 election victory of United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of centre-left political parties led by the Congress.

Mukherjee’s return to political power

From 2004 to 2012, when he left parliament to become president, Mukherjee held three key ministries – defence (2004-06), external affairs (2006-09), and finance (2009-12).

During this period, corruption was rife in India, and Mukharjee himself faced multiple corruption allegations. But once again he expertly avoided legal scrutiny.

In his tenure as defence minister, for example, it is alleged that he delayed the CBI enquiry into the “naval war room leaks” scandal of 2005, where information on the Indian Navy’s plans for the future was leaked to arms dealers and middlemen, potentially jeopardising India’s national security. On a subsequent, and allegedly related submarine deal (known as the Scorpene deal scam) that he signed into a contract that same year, a middleman allegedly received a commission on behalf of the governing party, the Indian National Congress.

As finance minister, not only was Mukherjee inactive in curtailing the flow of black money from India to abroad, he allegedly interfered in an investigation by Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to protect multiple corporate houses, including but not limited to his longtime favourite industrial group owned by the Ambani family – Reliance.

In addition, through his adviser Omita Paul, he interfered in the appointment of the heads of several financial institutions in India. On another occasion, a leaked conversation between lobbyist Nira Radia and then-Finance Secretary NK Singh revealed how a tax-related policy framed by Mukherjee provided an 81,000 crore rupees (about $11bn at the current exchange rate) retrospective tax concession to Reliance.

However, during this period, the corruption allegations against him were not necessarily restricted to the activities of the ministries that he was directly in charge. Mukherjee chaired most of the special bodies known as Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) during the UPA’s two terms. These groups had supreme authority in making and reviewing policies, and through that, Mukherjee had the power to intervene in ministries that were otherwise beyond his jurisdiction.

His decisions as the chair of EGoMs led to undue benefits worth thousands of crores being channelled to Reliance Power Limited. In 2008, another EGoM headed by Mukherjee made an exception to the ban on rice exports amid a global rice crisis despite some other top ministers objecting to the decision as India was anticipating issues in food security. Instead of state-owned procurement agencies conducting the trade, a few corporations managed to sneak in, and made millions of dollars in profit by diverting grains. One should wonder if Mukherjee was any more the same politician who described himself on national television as strictly unwilling to compromise on the issue of food security.

All the above-mentioned allegations directed at the Congress-led governments and involving Mukherjee are in the public domain. They have been widely reported by the media and brought up in parliament by opposition parties. Several parliamentary committees were also formed to investigate the allegations. Nevertheless, none of these investigations reached anywhere and Mukherjee managed to silence most of his opponents through expert diplomatic manoeuvres. Avoiding parliamentary scrutiny was not difficult for him, as he himself set crony capitalism as the official way to conduct business, and govern India, some decades earlier.

An increasingly BJP-friendly president

Despite objections, protests, and open letters questioning his “moral eligibility” for the highest office in India, Mukherjee managed to garner bipartisan support and become India’s president in 2012.

And soon after starting his tenure, he made it clear that he would continue to make decisions and pursue policies that furthered his own interests, rather than the interests of the Indian people and democracy.

For example, in sharp contrast to his predecessors, Mukherjee rejected most of the mercy pleas from convicts facing the death penalty, at a time when more and more modern democracies were abolishing capital punishment. Specifically, in February 2013, Mukherjee rejected the mercy plea of Afzal Guru, the alleged mastermind behind the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, despite being aware of the multiple shortcomings of Guru’s prosecution.

His decision to execute Guru was contested and condemned publicly by parts of India’s civil society, however, he turned a deaf ear. Instead, he decided to play along the tunes of the increasingly nationalist sentiments of the Indian public. Thus, by hanging Guru, he avoided being remembered as the president who forgave a man that (allegedly) attacked the parliament – an institution Mukherjee previously referred to as the “temple” of Indian democracy.

In reality, though, Mukherjee’s decision was likely not rooted in his deep respect for parliament. Being the seasoned politician that he is, Mukherjee was aware that the pardon of Guru by a prominent Congress figure like himself would have made his party appear soft on terror and lose ground against the Hindu nationalist opposition, the BJP. Thus, he was doing a political favour to the Congress by hanging Guru, as evident by the comments of several Congress ministers following the execution.

His decision to reject Guru’s mercy plea not only helped his party survive another day in the face of growing support for the BJP, but also sent the message to the powerful opposition party that he could, when necessary, support their causes too.

And when the BJP came to power in the middle of his tenure in 2014, Mukherjee repeatedly made moves to reassure the new government that he would not be an obstacle to its Hindu nationalist agenda.

Mukherjee’s supporters say the claims that he pandered to nationalists during his tenure as president is nothing but cynic speculation. However, his flirtation with Hindu nationalists is a matter of fact.

In June 2017, a month before the end of his tenure as president, for example, Mukherjee invited Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological backbone of the BJP – to lunch in his residence. Never in the history of India has a president, whether aligned with the Indian National Congress or not, invited the chief of an organisation that played a role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The message was clear, Mukherjee wanted to have a good rapport with the Hindu nationalist leadership.

Mukherjee’s obvious move away from the Congress and towards the BJP following the party’s rise to power was another calculated move by the experienced politician, as it presented a way for him to fulfil the goal he worked towards his entire political career – becoming India’s prime minister.

Back then there was talk of the need for a future prime minister who stands somewhere between the Congress and the BJP that could bring an end to the growing polarisation in the nation. Mukherjee perhaps thought that he could be that “prime minister of consensus”, given his reputation as a “consensus builder” in India’s political circles.

In what many see as a desperate yet inconsequential attempt towards this goal, a year before the general elections of 2019, he attended the annual camp of the RSS as a chief guest.

In interviews that followed, he said that by mentioning India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (projected as the eternal enemy of the RSS in popular media) and his inclusive brand of nationalism in the speech he gave at the RSS event, he wanted to show Hindu nationalists “where they are going wrong”. Was he trying to teach the RSS a lesson, too, when he praised Keshav Hedgewar, the infamous racist, sexist bigot who founded the organisation in 1925?

Whatever Mukherjee may have claimed his intentions were when he attended the RSS event and delivered his speech, his move served only one purpose: helping the RSS establish itself as a mainstream organisation that is not really at odds with the ideas of secular, liberal democracy that the Indian constitution envisaged.

Following the news of Mukherjee’s death, the RSS chief said the former president was an inspirational guide to the RSS which suffered an irreparable loss at his death. Such is the cost of diplomacy driven by a hunger for power, guided by the lack of personal and political integrity, that a lifelong Congress leader would end up being appropriated by the very forces that his party publicly denounces.

No one could possibly catch his corruption that benefitted certain rich industrialists or some high-ranking politicians. The only causes he served were not those of the Indian public, but of those in power. His only ideology was to remain in proximity to power, so he could not care any less about ideology.

Are these the reasons why so many believe that Pranab Mukherjee would have been the best prime minister that India never had?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.