India Loses a Finance Minister but Gains a President

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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India's finance minister, the veteran politician Pranab Mukherjee, 76, tendered his resignation last week after three years in office. This was his second term in that post -- he first served from 1982 to 1984 -- an extraordinary feat of political endurance, as well as a study in contrasts between the challenges of running the economy in pre- and post-liberalization India.

There was no whiff of controversy or taint of scandal about Mukherjee's sudden departure. Nor could it be said, though, that he left on a high. India's economy has been on a rocky road recently.

But if all goes well, Mukherjee should be jobless no longer than three weeks. That's because he is now the candidate proposed by the Indian National Congress, the party he has served loyally for more than four decades, for the post of president. The presidential elections are July 19, and Mukherjee, a politician who commands respect across political divides, is set to comfortably hold off his rival for the post, PA Sangma.

Mukherjee would also bring a much more impressive resume to an office often thought to be mainly ceremonial -- but one with considerable power -- than the outgoing president, Pratibha Patil. She was nominated by the Congress in 2007 partly because she is a woman (and no woman had held the post before) and partly because, as one scribe put it, she suffered from a deficit of ambition and was content to be "a middle-ranking party leader and a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist." She leaves without having supplied very much else to add to that description.

Mukherjee's political career, however, reveals no want of ambition. Indeed, he would now be high on a list of the best prime ministers India never had. There is something tragic, therefore, about his being shunted out of a policy-making environment when he clearly still had much to offer, even if Mukherjee himself seemed happy with the switch. On the Economist's Asia blog, Banyan, it was noted that Mukherjee had at long last settled for achieving "his second-highest ambition."

Even if the current UPA coalition government were to return to power in the next general elections in 2014 -- a possibility that at this moment seems unlikely -- the prime minister's post would likely go to Rahul Gandhi, the son of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. He is the most privileged beneficiary of Indian democracy's pronounced dynastic turn over the last three decades that began with the wave of sympathy after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 brought into power her son, the political neophyte Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul's father. (About a third of elected members of Parliament in the current Lok Sabha have a family background in politics.)

As the Economist pointed out, Mukherjee was a contender for the post of prime minister in 1984, too -- and was ignored:

That [Mukherjee] is simply too useful in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, of which he is the leader, may be one reason why Congress’s boss, Sonia Gandhi, widow of a former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, has seemed reluctant to endorse him as a presidential choice. Almost every politician in Delhi, however, seems to suspect another: that she does not trust him to do the right thing by her presumed candidate for the next prime minister, her son Rahul. They recall the events that followed the assassination of her mother-in-law, Indira, in 1984. Mr Mukherjee, then, as now, finance minister, is said to have been consulted on who should replace Mrs Gandhi as prime minister, and to have suggested that it should be the second-most senior cabinet minister, that is, himself. The dynasty prevailed, and Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother.

A complementary perspective on the fascinating nuances of Mukherjee's position against the frames of history and the future was supplied in Tehelka by Ashok Malik, who wrote last month:

Even so, it has been apparent that Pranab wants the job. He is tired of shepherding the finance ministry, having told confidants even two or three years ago that the UPA’s policy paralysis, lack of political support for liberalisation and the excessive zeal of Jairam Ramesh’s environment ministry were going to cause a problem.

That aside, Pranab certainly does not see himself contesting another Lok Sabha election. Neither is he keen on serving under Rahul Gandhi, a man almost four decades his junior. He realises his innings is coming to a close; Rashtrapati Bhavan [the president's palatial residence] would be a fitting pavilion.

And the veteran journalist MJ Akbar, probably India's most insightful and readable political columnist, had some trenchant observations in an article called "The Dilemma of Departure" about Mukherjee's perceived failures as finance minister and his successor to the post. That man is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was responsible for the liberalization of India's economy in 1991, when he served as finance minister.

Those who have seen Pranab Mukherjee after he filed his nomination for President of India remark that they have never seen him so relieved and happy. The relief is that he has left the Delhi culture of power behind. The happiness is easier to understand: nothing foreseeable can prevent him from becoming the 13th resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

What is unusual, and different, in Pranab Mukherjee's case is that his former boss is his successor, since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken charge of the finance ministry now that Mukherjee is headed towards a more spacious residence in Delhi. After more than six decades of democracy, India's political, economic and media elite still don't seem to get how government works. Policy is the prerogative of Cabinet. The Prime Minister cannot claim that he does not share responsibility for policy, domestic or foreign. Pranab Mukherjee did not make finance policy like some czar of an autonomous state. In fact, it could not have become policy without the PM's approval.

The minister's task is implementation, and if Mukherjee fell short, it was often for reasons beyond his control. Take the much-hyped instance of foreign direct investment in retail. Let us set aside the point that we often behave as if India's future lies in the presence or absence of a few IKEA or Walmart stores. It was not Mukherjee who aborted this decision. He lobbied for it harder than anyone else. He was stopped by the fact that his government did not have a majority behind this decision. Nor was it a case of only allies like Mamata Banerjee raising dust; strong sections of the Congress party were opposed, and made their displeasure public. To push ahead nevertheless would have meant the fall of Dr Singh's government, and that was not a risk which either Dr Singh or Congress president Sonia Gandhi was ready to take.

Dr Singh has asked the human beings in his finance ministry to go forth and find an "animal spirit". We will learn soon enough which animal is going to provide the inspiration, and to which degree this spirit will be distilled.

But Swaminathan S. Aiyar, writer of the popular column "Swaminomics" in the Times of India, was skeptical that the new finance minister, even if he was also the head of the Cabinet, would be able to push through crucial economic reforms that ran against the prevailing bias towards welfarism favored by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (neither of whom have ever presented a coherent statement of their policy preferences):

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has become finance minister too. His first spell as finance minister (1991-96) was a heady period of economic reform, converting India from an international beggar into a potential superpower. Will his second spell as finance minister produce another courageous set of major reforms?

Not a chance. Singh has been pretty powerless for eight years as Prime Minister. That will not change one whit after he becomes finance minister, because all real power is wielded by Sonia Gandhi.

She is not much interested in economic reform- her emphasis has always been on welfare and subsidies. Her National Advisory Council has made sundry NGOs more important than the Prime Minister in deciding policy directions. She believes elections are won not by economic growth but by welfare schemes (like NREGA), giveaways (like the 2008 farm loan waiver) and job reservations. She thinks this strategy won her re-election in 2009, and finds little reason to change it.

So Mukherjee moves on from four decades in active politics as a congressman to a more detached role, far from the jousting of Parliament and the heat and dust of the hustings -- but for how long? As Siddharth Varadarajan wrote recently in the Hindu in "Politics After President Pranab," the next general election in 2014 might result in a hung Parliament in which any one of four possible coalitions stake a claim to form the government. In that situation, the president would have to exercise prudence and tact in working out whom to invite first to try their luck. But it may also mean that the Congress could compliment itself on installing a former party-man in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

And Mukherjee's resume tells us that he has written five books (one of them has the alarming subtitle "Saga of Struggle and Sacrifice"). Perhaps, once he is installed as president and free from the clutches of the party that both raised him and reined him in, Mukherjee could extend his lifelong loyalty to the Congress to the citizenry at large, and write, for their enjoyment and instruction and for the sake of democratic transparency, a memoir of his years negotiating the methods and natures of the often inscrutable dynasty that runs the world's largest democracy.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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