The dilemma of departure
Column by M.J. Akbar
What is happening to Pranab Mukherjee is cruel but not unusual. It happens to Popes, editors and chief executives as much as to former finance ministers. The Vatican does not advertise the dilemma of past pontiffs, since the institution is sacred, and sometimes it takes few centuries before we get to know which Borgia had how many children, but the news is bad for editors and others who are less divine.
As long as you occupy the chair you get the perquisites of God. The moment you are yanked off, the bile of frustration, revenge and ambition begins to flow through your reputation. There is nothing called an empty chair in real life. And no man is a hero to either his valet or his successor.
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.
There is still insufficient political support for raising FDI limits to 49% in insurance and pension. Mukherjee himself argued that he could do little about the fiscal decisions taken by the Reserve Bank of India since its governor D. Subbarao refused to listen to him, and the governor was both appointed and backed by the Prime Minister.
What a minister is responsible for is implementation, and the argument can only be restricted to this. 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 the Prime Minister already has another and more difficult problem. Whether the animal spirit rears up or not, Mukherjee’s departure seems to have inspired rather large quantities of the animal instinct amongst Cabinet ministers. There is a clutch of claimants for Mukherjee’s old job, and as various ministers cast an eye on the quality of the queue, they immediately join it. Vituperative conflicts are raging on the side, as big business pushes forward its preferred candidates.
These gentlemen [there are no ladies in line] are, in my view, making one big mistake. They are underestimating the Prime Minister. He has promised a Cabinet reshuffle “soon”, but “soon” has an elasticity that is equal to another four-letter word, “wait”. Any dramatic shuffle is not possible before the votes for President are cast on 19 July. After that comes the election for Vice President, which takes us to 10 August.
By this time the monsoon session of Parliament will be underway. When this ends the climate will change, with the thermometer under the tongue of the crucial Gujarat elections. Come November, and all talk within government will turn to preparations for the next Budget, due in February. While politics is the antonym of certainty, it is a good bet that Prime Minister Singh will deliver his first budget after 1996.
The beauty of this exercise is that the Prime Minister merely has to let time and a calendar he cannot change shape the agenda. Never forget that Dr Singh took a graduate course in politics from the Narasimha Rao University of Survival by Procrastination. 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.