Address by the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee at the India Today Conclave 2017
I am delighted to be in Mumbai to participate in the India Today Conclave 2017 as Chief Guest. Let me begin by complimenting Mr. Aroon Purie and the India Today Group on its continuing success in organising these Conclaves every year and in particular, for having assembled this time a wonderful gathering of eminent minds from various walks of lives, from India as well as abroad.
The topic I have been asked to speak on is “Such a Long Innings: Politics, Power, Office”. I wonder if the India Today Group was fully aware of the risk they were taking by proposing such a topic to me. Let me tell you why.
I started my career as a Lecturer of Political Science in a College near Kolkata, in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Teaching was my passion, but little did I know that my passion for teaching would soon become a headache for my fellow teachers. My classes invariably over ran the time allotted and encroached into their sessions. As a result, my colleagues got together and petitioned the Principal requesting that my classes mandatorily be made the last lecture of the day.
Beginning from those days, teaching and lecturing has remained a fond undertaking of mine. Having invited me to speak on the topic of my long innings in public life, I wonder if the organisers realised that I could speak for a full two days and still not finish all that I would like to say.
I shall, however, do my best to ensure that the speakers who are to follow do not suffer on account of me. I intend to confine myself to the sharing of a few thoughts. For those who want to know more, I request them to read my memoirs which have been published in two volumes titled “The Dramatic Decade – Indira Gandhi Years” and “The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996”. The third volume of my memoirs which will conclude with my election to the Office of the President is also due to be published soon.
Friends, ladies and gentlemen,
My first exposure to politics was at home. My father, the late Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, joined the Indian National Congress in response to the call of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. A staunch nationalist, he was arrested several times by the British Government during the freedom struggle. After independence, he served as member of the West Bengal Legislative Council for two terms from 1952.
I have many childhood memories of local Congress leaders frequently visiting our modest house made of mud walls and a thatched roof. Quite often, when the discussions extended through the day, my mother would prepare a frugal meal for them. Whatever little food was available would be equally shared and if the number of visitors was large, neighbours and friends in the village would send vegetables and rice to augment our limited provisions.
It is hence .not surprising that when I entered college, the study of politics and modern Indian history captivated me. During my college years, I became involved with student politics. Through all of this period, and till date, Jawaharlal Nehru was a dominant influence on me as he was on most of my generation.
Nehru was a politician, statesman, institution builder and a nationalist committed to the plurality that makes India exceptional. He was deeply committed to building a multicultural, multi-ethnic, secular and democratic nation. Accommodation as well as inclusion of all sections of political and intellectual opinion was the key hallmark of his politics. Nehru’s thinking was of course deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings.
A concrete example of the above was the approach adopted by the Congress Party under Gandhiji and Nehru to the elections held to the Constituent Assembly in July – August 1946. The Congress nominated 30 persons from outside the Party to ensure that the Assembly was truly representative. Liberal representation was given to minorities, Scheduled Castes and Tribes. 16 eminent persons, including people like Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, Sir N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar (a former civil servant), H.C. Mookherjee (an educationist), Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (philosopher and educationist) and H.N. Kunzru (President of the Servants of India Society) were elected on the Congress ticket to broad base the Constituent Assembly and enhance participation in the making of the Constitution. All of them went on to play an important role in the debates and made significant contribution to the final formulations which were adopted as part of the Constitution.
Nehru advocated active participation of the people in the governance of the country. He was a firm believer in freedom of thought and expression. For Nehru, democracy and civil liberties were not only a means for bringing about economic and social development, but absolute values and ends in themselves. In Nehru’s thinking, only a democratic structure which gave space to various cultural, political and socio-economic voices could hold India together. Nehru was unhappy with the banning of the Communist Party in 1948 by Dr. B.C. Roy, then Chief Minister of West Bengal, even though he was against its policies. His view was that the Communist Party should be countered through the established legal processes.
Nehru also strongly discouraged all forms of hero worship. He said “India is too large a country with too many legitimate diversities to permit any so-called ‘strong man’ to trample over people and their ideas.” In fact, as early as in November 1937, he had penned an article titled ‘Rashtrapati’ under the pseudonym Chanakya in the `Modern Review’ of Calcutta edited by Ramananda Chattopadhyay. In the article, Nehru accused himself of having all the makings of a dictator and concluded – “We want no Caesars.”
I highlight the importance of inclusion and accommodation because throughout my innings, I have tried to follow this path. I have had the good fortune of making friends across the political spectrum during my long political career. Sometimes their politics and mine may have differed. But, that never came in the way of my listening, understanding, debating and striving to create a consensus on all important issues.
Let me add here that I believe former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was a leader in the Nehruvian mould. He was an able politician who added a personal touch to his interaction with all opposition leaders. He successfully led an NDA coalition comprising different parties with leaders holding divergent views as Prime Minister for over 6 years. He had many sterling human qualities and always combined courtesy with political sagacity. I recall how he came across to the Opposition Bench where I was seated one day before commencement of the House. I was startled and told him – “Prime Minister, you could have sent word to me. I would have come to you.” Atalji responded – “This is a small matter. We are all colleagues.” He then made a special request. “Do not be aggressive in your criticism of George Fernandes. He appears strong but is suffering from some serious health issues. Aggressive criticism may worsen his situation.” Touched by this personal gesture and out of concern for the welfare of George, I immediately stopped my attacks on the floor of the House.
I joined active politics in 1966, two years after Nehru had passed away. I had, therefore, no occasion to meet him in person. However, my subsequent entry into Parliament in 1969 spurred me to study and understand Nehru further as well as adopt him as an icon, especially with regard to Parliamentary matters.
Nehru was at core an institution builder. Respectful of the apex institution of India’s new democracy, he spoke frequently in Parliament and used it as a forum to disseminate his views to the public. Despite the majority enjoyed by the Congress Party, he ensured that the Parliament always reflected the will of the entire people. He was often seen sitting patiently through long and sometimes boring debates—and was an example to his colleagues and young Parliamentarians. Even during the last few months of his life—when he was ill—he did not miss a single session and would insist on rising to his feet whenever he had to speak, to maintain the decorum of the House.
Nehru believed that all programmes and policies of the Government had to be properly debated, understood, evaluated and then accepted. He sought to create a consensus on major issues so that people felt motivated and involved in the task of building the nation as well as safeguarding its freedom and democratic institutions. He believed that the Parliament was the primary forum for the holding of such debates and the evolution of a consensus.
On the eve of our first general election, The Manchester Guardian wrote – “If ever a country took a leap in the dark towards democracy it was India.” If from that situation, India is today admired across the world as the largest functioning democracy, it is because of the strong leadership and liberal values provided by Nehru which enabled democracy take deep root in our country. It is to Nehru that credit goes for making the Indian Parliament a vibrant, powerful institution; establishing healthy traditions in Parliamentary practice and for the building of institutions essential to support our democratic structure such as an independent judiciary, free press, autonomous Election Commission and a Comptroller and Auditor General for independent scrutiny of Government expenditure.
Inspired by Nehru, I have throughout my Parliamentary career, held the belief that the Parliament is a sacred institution and should be given the utmost of reverence.
Ladies and Gentlemen, having spoken at length about Nehru, let me now turn to another strong leader, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was virtually my mentor. There has been none in our modern history who has been identified with the idea of power as much as Mrs. Gandhi. There is also probably none who has wielded power as effectively as Mrs. Gandhi did over a total period of 16 years as Prime Minister, though, with both good and not so good consequences.
Mrs. Gandhi was a remarkable personality of the 20th century. She played a major role in shaping our country’s destiny during a critical period in history, when India was confronted with many challenges and turmoil. Mrs. Indira Gandhi was unflinching in her concern for the poor and the disadvantaged and championed their cause with rare intensity. She was a crusader for global peace, a just economic order and disarmament.
Courage, fearlessness in action and boldness in decision making was the unique hallmark of Mrs. Gandhi’s character. She fought relentlessly against communalism and rose above all divisions of religion, caste, community and creed during her entire life.
As is well known, the high point in Mrs. Gandhi’s political career was the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. During this crisis, Indiraji demonstrated her leadership skills as well as ability to take tough decisions in the interest of the people and nation. She took tremendous risk and showed that she was a leader with nerves of steel. She combined bold and quick decision making with careful planning, adequate preparation and single-minded focus on the goal of liberating Bangladesh.
Mrs. Gandhi’s diplomatic and communication skills were of very high order. She successfully projected India’s concerns over Pakistan’s policies and atrocities in East Pakistan which resulted in 10 million refugees being forced to seek asylum in our country. I was a junior Member of Parliament at that time. Mrs. Gandhi sent me as a Special Envoy to France, West Germany and UK to seek support and explain India’s stance.
However, excessive power and popularity led to Mrs. Gandhi making mistakes. The misadventure of Emergency is an example of this. It is also believed that the tendency to overcentralise decision making and the evolution of the Prime Minister’s Office into a powerful centre of decision making, began from the tenure of Mrs. Gandhi.
It would be wise for succeeding generations of leadership in India to learn from Mrs. Gandhi’s strengths as well as her mistakes. Our system of governance is Parliamentary and not Presidential. In a Parliamentary system, all Ministers are collectively and severally responsible to the Parliament and through it, to the people. The Prime Minister is ‘Primus inter Pares’ or first among equals. It is my belief that a country as complex and diverse as India can be administered only through delegation of authority. I invite our scholars and political scientists to analyse the consequences and long term implications of moving away from the classic tenets of a Parliamentary system.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This brings me to the question of Office. On 25 July, 2012, I was elected the thirteenth President of India. There is no honour and privilege greater than to serve as the First Citizen of this extraordinary country. I have always believed that people of India have given me far more than I have been able to repay in my long innings of almost 51 years in public life – 37 years in Parliament and 22 years, nine months as Minister handling different portfolios.
I also served 14 years as Leader of both Houses of Parliament, 6 years of the Rajya Sabha and 8 years of the Lok Sabha. I served under four Prime Ministers, my mentor, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Shri Rajiv Gandhi briefly and two of my colleagues Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh. I worked with eight Presidents of the Congress Party, with around 30 years as member of the highest policy making body of the party, namely the Congress Working Committee.
I will soon complete five years as President, during which period two Prime Ministers, Dr. Manmohan Singh and Shri Narendra Modi headed the Government. I have learnt a lot from the calm wisdom and great scholarship in the field of economics of Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has been a colleague and friend of long years. I have also been deeply impressed by the focussed approach, energy and capacity for hard work of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Permit me to make a few submissions motivated purely by a desire to see our country and its people do the very best. The first issue pertains to maintaining the sanctity of the Parliament and all our Legislatures. I speak with some anguish because my entire public life has been defined by my role in Parliament. My substantive political life began from the day I entered the Rajya Sabha in 1969 and ended when my membership automatically ceased upon my being declared elect to the Office of the President in 2012. Whatever I have learnt, what I have achieved and all that I have contributed has been through Parliament.
It is, therefore, difficult for me to stand and watch this fundamental pillar of Indian democracy being rendered ineffective. In my view, there is absolutely no justification for constant disruption of proceedings, low level of attendance, shrinking in number of days that the Parliament and State Legislatures meet as well as the irresponsible manner in which important legislation, including the Budget and financial proposals, get passed with hardly any discussion.
When our Legislatures cease to function effectively, the very basis of our democracy gets undermined. It is through the Parliament and our Legislative Assemblies that governments are held accountable to the people. If they become dysfunctional, it results not only in institutional paralysis but also has ripple effects across the system.
The foremost responsibility of a Parliamentarian is Legislation. It is most unfortunate that the time devoted to legislation has been gradually declining in our Parliament. To illustrate, the first Lok Sabha from 1952-57 had 677 sittings in which 319 bills were passed. In comparison, the fourteenth Lok Sabha from 2004-2009 had 332 sittings and passed just 247 bills. The fifteenth Lok Sabha had 357 sittings and passed 181 bills while the sixteenth Lok Sabha has so far had only 197 sittings and passed only 111 bills (upto the 10th session).
Figures are available for the time lost due to interruptions/adjournments from the Tenth Lok Sabha (1991-96) onwards. 9.95% of total time was lost due to interruptions in the Tenth Lok Sabha, 5.28% in the Eleventh Lok Sabha, 11.93% in the Twelfth Lok Sabha, 18.95% in the Thirteenth Lok Sabha, 19.58% in the Fourteenth Lok Sabha, a shocking 41.6% in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha and about 16% in the Sixteenth Lok Sabha (upto the 10th session).
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is of benefit to both the Ruling Party and the Opposition to break this vicious cycle of disruptions and disorderly behaviour. I appeal to political leadership across the spectrum and across the country to arrive at an agreement that all protests and airing of grievances will be undertaken only in such manner that the functioning of our Parliament and Legislatures are not disrupted.
Secondly, the Constitution of India and the values and principles enshrined in it must at all times remain the lodestar. Constitutional provisions must be respected in letter and spirit by all of us, especially those in positions of authority and in public life. Executive action and legislation must indeed conform to the Constitution but going beyond that, day to day activities of political parties and all those associated with it must also conform to the Constitution and its provisions as interpreted by our judiciary. The tendency of individuals and groups taking the law into their own hands should be strongly resisted.
Thirdly, one of the principal lessons India’s history teaches us is that united we stand, divided we fall. Our past is replete with examples of how we have fallen when we failed to act unitedly and how we achieved wonders when we acted in unison. Our freedom fighters passed the Quit India Resolution in 1942 and within five years, forced the British to grant us independence. It will be impossible for us to achieve the progress that we seek, if in our country man turns against man in the name of religion, caste or politics.
Fourthly, India has always celebrated diversity and debate. We are a nation of 1.3 billion people who stand together as one nation, united under one flag and one Constitution. Over 100 languages are spoken in India on a daily basis. All major religions and ethnic groups have co-existed in peace and harmony for centuries. Free speech and expression is not only guaranteed by our Constitution but has been an important characteristic of our civilisation and tradition. Indians are known to be argumentative, but never intolerant. In fact, a Conclave such as this is one of the best examples of the free debate and discussion that should take place in our society.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Finally, in a Parliamentary democracy, we must always guard against majoritarianism. Those in power must involve and take the entire nation along with them at all times. Consultation and consensus is the best and often, only way forward. I was extremely happy to hear Prime Minister Modi speak about the need for humility in the aftermath of his party’s victory in recent elections to Uttar Pradesh and other State Assemblies. He asserted that while electoral verdicts are determined on the basis of ‘Bahumat’, the States will be governed on the principle of ‘Sarvamat’. This is indeed India’s tradition and what the large majority of our people desire to see in action.
Let me add at the same time that the country also needs a strong Opposition standing guard. Nehru used to say “I do not want India to be a country in which millions of people say “yes” to one man, I want a strong opposition.”
As I have said in the past, the India of my dreams is one where unity of purpose results in common good; where Centre and State are driven by the single vision of good governance; where every revolution is green; where democracy is not merely the right to vote once in five years but to speak always in the citizen’s interest; where knowledge becomes wisdom; where the young pour their phenomenal energy and talent into the collective cause.
I conclude with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, which in a way summarises my long innings. Tagore wrote :
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy
I awoke and saw that life was service
I acted and behold, service was joy”