Poltu Becomes President
Mirati to Raisina. On a road littered with blood, sweat and a few stray skeletons.
O ma, Poltu aabar ke? Don’t be insolent and ignorant. That’s our President’s daak naam or pet name.
Pranab-da? You don’t say? It’s been a long wait though, for the little man to make it big. You can scoff all you want. But he’s put in the time and finally got what he wanted.
He became an MP 43 years ago and his first stint as Finance Minister of India began exactly 30 years ago. He’s been a minister under every Congress Prime Minister in the last 40 years.
He’s also been on the board of governors at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. In fact, it was during his tenure that India settled its IMF loan and he’s famous for not withdrawing the last instalment of the 1.1 billion dollar IMF loan India had taken.
How impressive. So Pranab-da’s not from any big political family, right? Yes, he’s a self-made man as they say. He was born on December 11, 1935 in Mirati village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. His father is Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, a very well-known freedom fighter.
When Poltu grew up and became Pranab, he studied politics, history and law at Calcutta University and worked as a lecturer, then as a journalist with Desher Dak and a lawyer before joining politics in 1969. He joined the Bangla Congress which was a breakaway faction led by Ajoy Mukherjee, and became a Rajya Sabha MP in 1969 when his senior in the party, Sushil Dhara declined the offer because his priority was Bengal politics. Pranab had joined Indira Gandhi’s cabinet as deputy minister for industrial development in 1973. She’d noticed him when he made a speech on bank nationalisation. And as they say, that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. He became a member of the Congress Working Committee in 1978 and was the leader of the house in Rajya Sabha when the Congress came back to power in 1980.
And Indira G made him No 2 in her Cabinet after she came to power in 1980. He used to preside over cabinet meetings when she was not present.
Since then he’s held the foreign, finance and defence portfolios in the last 30 years.
Aah, so he’s always been the bridesmaid and never the bride. Well, to give him his due, he’s more like the maid of honour going by his high-profile role over the decades and his erstwhile Mr Fix-It role in this government. He did have some hiccups along the way, though.
It’s rumoured that the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, he had told Rajiv Gandhi that the most senior member of the cabinet should become caretaker Prime Minister – which was only stating what is custom. But junior took umbrage and exiled him. Basically, he didn’t include Pranab-da in his Cabinet when he became PM.
And then? A miffed Pranab-da left the Congress in 1986. He started his own party. The Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. Which made no dent in the political landscape. It’s the when-in-doubt-simply-pout PV Narasimha Rao who made him the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission when he became PM in 1991.
And after that there was no stopping him. He was defence minister from 2004 to 2006, minister for external affairs from 2006 to 2009 and then finance minister from 2009 until when he resigned on June 27, 2012 after he was chosen as the UPA’s presidential candidate. In the meantime, he was heading 26 GoMs and EGoMs during the tenure of UPA II. Of course, it’s a different matter that most of these GoMs and EGoMs never met.
So he’s quite the consummate politician. Well, not in the traditional sense. In his 43 years of being in politics, he’s fought elections to the Lok Sabha in 1977 and 1980 – and lost. He then contested again in 2004 and 2009 and won both times. This was, in spite of Congress politician Ajit Panja saying, “He would not be able to win an election even in his family”.
So this is sounding like a strangely blemish-free political career. Don’t be cynical. Well, actually you’re right to be. It’s not like Pranab-da hasn’t got his fingers dirty ever. In fact, quite the opposite.
When he was finance minister the first time round, he introduced a slew of incentives. One of the main ones being an incentive offering Non-Resident Indians to invest in India. And allowing them to buy shares from the secondary market. Swraj Paul, the London-based Indian businessman, acquired major shareholdings in Escorts and DCM Ltd which are owned by the Nanda and Bharat Ram families and tried to take-over the two companies. Rajiv Gandhi had to step in and bail out the families.
Which might explain his eagerness to shove Pranab-da out into the cold as soon as he got his chance.
That’s it? One small mistake as FM. There’s much more to follow.
Thanks to his unflinching support of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, he found special mention in the JC Shah Commission report on the excesses during 1975-77’s Emergency. The report indicted Pranab Mukherjee for putting political opponents such as Colonel Bhavani Singh, Vijaya Raje and Gayatri Devi in jail. The report states in paragraph 7.49, “7.49 Although Shri Pranab Mukherjee assisted the Commission at the preliminary stage of the fact finding inquiry, he did not file any statement in the case, as was required to be done under Rule 5 (2) (a) of the Commission of Inquiry (Central) Rules 1972. He had responded to the summons u/s. 8B of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. But he refused to take oath and tender evidence.”
Unlike his colleagues, Pranab took the fall for Indira. He owned up and deposed that he would not divulge the details of his actions because he was sworn to secrecy while taking oath as minister. And from then Indira knew that he was her Walter Raleigh.
In fact, in 2010, Pranab-da wrote a book on the 125th anniversary of the Congress party. In this book he claimed Sanjay Gandhi was solely responsible for all the excesses of the government during 1975-1977.
Loyalty like that is rarely found. He is a loyal sort because Indira Gandhi’s not the only one he was loyal to. There’s also Dhirubhai. According to Hamish McDonald who wrote The Polyester Prince, – “He was a friend of Dhirubhai when he was a minister for commerce, giving all the export-import licences (to Reliance). And then as finance minister (FM) in the Indira Gandhi government – it goes back to the time of those Isle of Man companies (1979-82), the dummy companies and the mysterious churning of Reliance shares. There were also perceived preferential treatments of the import duties on the ingredients of polyester, such as Reliance vis-a-vis Bombay Dyeing.
The next big accusation of partisanship came when Mukherjee was put in charge of the ministerial committee that handled the Bay of Bengal gas fields and the gas pricing. By that stage, the linkage had moved on to Mukesh Ambani’s group. So people saw Mukherjee and Murli Deora (then petroleum minister) being friends of the second generation of Reliance. But it was all done in a way that fitted all the norms… so one can’t accuse him of anything untoward, expect perhaps that he clearly took a fairly favourable view on the company’s development. So the history of his relations with the Ambanis goes back a long long way to the 1980s where he is seen as having flourished under the patronage of a very wealthy tycoon. But then, the whole Congress Party did”.
Pranab also denied knowing what the Isle of Man companies (11 NRI companies were allowed to invest in Reliance) and the companies called Crocodile Investments and Fiasco Investments were.
But people must have read The Polyester Prince and questions must have been asked. That’s where things get fishy. The Polyester Prince which was published in 1998 was never sold in India. It was almost impossible to get a copy of The Polyester Prince even outside India. Rumour has it that someone had apparently bought up and pulped the remaining stock.
In 2010, the book was published in a new edition and was renamed Ambani and Sons. This version had new chapters on the next generation on the Brothers Ambani and like magic all the incriminating references to politicians and the Ambanis had been dropped. Supposedly, the Indian publisher had to agree to this slightly unfair exchange to distribute the book in this country.
Well, that’s all water under the bridge. He’s done Bengal and the UPA proud now and become our 13th president.
But does all work and no play make Pranab-da a dull man? Whatever is he going to do with all this spare time at Rashtrapati Bhawan? Well Poltu has been hard-working. All that standing up for people indulging in misdeeds from the original Madame Gandhi to Dhirubhai. Which is why he’s finally been gifted with a retirement plan like no other.
As president, he’ll draw a salary of Rs.1.5 lakh a month and other than for Rashtrapati Bhawan, he’ll also have state homes in Shimla and Hyderabad. His official car is a bulletproof Mercedes Benz. And once his term is through, he’ll get Rs 75,000 a month as pension and a furnished rent free bungalow (Type VIII). And two two free landline and a mobile phone, five personal staff including a private secretary, an official car and staff expenses of Rs 60,000 a year. And can travel free with a companion by train or air. Now that’s a retirement plan, if there ever was any. So he’s literally got more from the nation than he gave.
So all that working 18 hours a day and standing by the Gandhis has truly paid off? Yeah, he might have been put out to pasture to the Raisina Hill, but at least he no longer has to prostate himself in front of Manmohan. Now, he can while away his hours playing tennis and playing golf while Rabindra Sangeet plays in the background and liveried waiters follow him with plates of feeesh fry and sandesh.
Do gift him: Polyester pants and a loyalty bracelet.
Don’t say: Want to take a holiday in the North-East?
Do say: Didi is calling. She’s coming over to celebrate bhai phota.
Image By: [Swarnabha Banerjee]