New Delhi: Former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is confident of becoming the next President of the country as he says that the arithmetic of the Presidential elections shows that the UPA candidate can win.
In an exclusive interview to IBN18 Editor-in-Chief Rajdeep Sardesai, Mukherjee said that he has no regrets of never been projected as the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress and said that he was humbled and honoured when he nominated for the Presidential elections by the UPA.
Here's the full text of the interview:
Rajdeep Sardesai: Hello and welcome to this CNN-IBN special. Up, close and personal with the man who could well be India's next President, Mr Pranab Mukherjee or Pranab da as he is better known. Pranab da, from a small village in Birbhum to being at the edge of becoming the first citizen of India and on the edge of becoming the Rashtrapati, it's been quite a journey. Hasn't it for you? It's been a remarkable journey.
Pranab Mukherjee: Of course it's a journey, long journey, no doubt. And to be the President of this Republic of the largest functional democracy in the world is a matter of honour and distinction. And when I received this offer, I felt humbled and honoured.
Rajdeep Sardesai: You felt humbled and honored. But I am going to ask you this, a few years ago, in fact two years ago, I remember interviewing you and you said that I am planning to not enter electoral politics anymore; I am not fighting any other elections. Were you at that movement thinking perhaps of becoming Rashtrapati? Was there some kind of a goal or somewhere in your mind there was this idea that enough of this politics, now Rashtrapati?
Pranab Mukherjee: In fact, you specifically asked me what would be your destination, if I remember correctly, you were interviewing me in Hindustan summit and you specifically asked me, what is your destination? Rashtrapati Bhawan or 7 RCR. I told you that I have already decided not to fight the Lok Sabha elections any longer because I was defeated twice; I have won twice, so it has been squared up and I am presently thinking of no other destinations but my library because I have collected some books I could not get time to read and I will utilise the time to read those books.
Rajdeep Sardesai: In fact, you are now in the library of Rashtrapati Bhawan. But the reason I asked you this is because there are many who consider you as the best prime minister India never had. Is there a sense of regret that you would rather be in 7 RCR than the Raisina Hill?
Pranab Mukherjee: No, I do not regret that because I told you at that time and I am repeating that Dr Manmohan Singh is one of the finest person and worthy person to be the prime minister and actually he has been. I think after Jawaharlalji and Indiraji, he would be the second man who will complete two terms.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, no regrets that Pranab Mukherjee was never projected for prime ministership?
Pranab Mukherjee: Not at all.
Rajdeep Sardesai: The other reason I ask you is whether you set your heart on Presidency or not because there is a feeling that the Congress leadership didn't really want you to be the President because they felt that you were needed for the party and for the government. That was the role for Pranab Mukherjee, which is why till the very end there was a feeling that will they actually allow Pranab Mukherjee to even become Rashtrapati.
Pranab Mukherjee: I am a partyman and when this issue was debated, I told the Congress president very clearly that I am a partyman and whatever role will be assigned by the party to me, faithfully I will discharge that responsibility. And thereafter having discussions and other things, all of you are fully aware of, it was decided and in the UPA meeting, those who were present starting from Sharad Pawarji to everybody, decided unanimously and then thereafter other things follow.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Because there was this feeling that Pranab Mukherjee is indispensable to the government. That he cannot be spared for the Presidency. And therefore, you name came at the very end. Other names were being mentioned, Hamid Ansari, even Meira Kumar but Pranab Mukherjee, he cannot be made President because the party needs him, the government needs him.
Pranab Mukherjee: It is not unusual because if you look at the type of work with which I was engaged in the government and in the party. I think those who became the President, their involvement in the party was not that much. Secondly, the situations were different. When Fakruddin Ali Ahmed as agriculture minister or R Venkatraman as defence minister were chosen for vice presidentship or Giani Jail Singh, the party had huge majority. There was no problem or question of getting the nominee elected. Therefore, it was easy for the party leadership to decide who could be the president. And here is a coalition government. Though we are the single-largest party in Lok Sabha with 200 seats but we are in the coalition. So, naturally the leadership will have to think of many other issues besides selecting the candidate for the President's office.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, in a sense, Pranab Mukherjee became the presidential nominee because you are in the best position to win a contest? Because you have friends in every party.
Pranab Mukherjee: I would not like to put it in that way. Now the support which we have received from various political parties, because it is expected that those members of the legislature who constitute the electoral college of the President's elections, they will go by the decision of the party. UPA itself had with Mamata, Trinamool Congress 4 lakh 61 thousand. So, we were short of about a lakh vote, which we thought we could get from the other supporting parties. Because, both SP and BSP were supporting the government from outside and they have a 1 lakh 11 thousand votes. So, the arithmetic said that the UPA nominee can win the election.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, when the media often speculates, over the years, that Pranab Mukerjee did not enjoy the full confidence of 10 Janpath. Will he be made the Presidential nominee? How did you react at that time?
Pranab Mukherjee: If the party leadership, the party president tells me that you are required for certain work then which party worker will not like to respond to that? That speaks of the confidence, not lack of confidence.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Dada, let's come to the contest itself. Some feel it is already exposing the fault lines in the UPA and the NDA. Mamata Banerjee, for example, has refused to support you, thereby exposing differences in Bengal. How do you respond to that Mamta Banerjee is not supporting a son of Bengal?
Pranab Mukherjee: Let's not look at the President's office from that angle. Mamata has explained her reasons in the statement because she thought that APJ Kalam would be a better choice for President. And after that when Shri Kalam did not agree to join the contest, she has not yet taken the decision. I hope she will take the decision at the appropriate time and I appeal to her to extend her support to me.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Were you little hurt somewhere, as I come back to the son of Bengal not being given support?
Pranab Mukherjee: I do not look at it with that angle. After all, she is running a political party and this political party has been created by her own, it has become successful through her own efforts, not from the support of others. Therefore, she has every right to choose her own path.
Rajdeep Sardesai: You called her your little sister; you've reached out to her. She is not responded. You know you are a son of Bengal, I will keep insisting on that. Are you still confident that she will at the end support you?
Pranab Mukherjee: I don't know. The decision has to be taken by her but I am continuing to appeal to her.
Rajdeep Sardesai: The reason sir I raise this because you are now in a contest with Mr Sangma, someone again whom you had a good relationship with. How do you respond when Mr Sangma says I want a debate with Pranab Mukherjee on the Presidential?
Pranab Mukherjee: The issue is not a question of debate, the question is debate on what. President is a figure here. Debate takes place at the time of general elections on issues and the issues are determined by the political parties, who place those issues before the electorate and the leader of the political parties who will form the government as prime minister, those issues could be debated. But Indian President does not determine a policy.
Rajdeep Sardesai: It cannot be a US Presidential-style debate.
Pranab Mukherjee: That is the Presidential-form of government where the President is the policy maker and the President is the executer. Here, the President is not the policy maker. In the name of the President, the decision of the Cabinet is being executed.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, it can't be a Presidential-style debate like the United States?
Pranab Mukherjee: Exactly. But as far as Sangma is concerned, I love him. I have worked with him, he is a bright man. I have nothing to speak against him.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, you are saying your Presidential election cannot be on Pranab Mukherjee the individual. It cannot be on the character of an individual, your track record over these years in public life?
Pranab Mukherjee: Exactly, it is not that issue.
Rajdeep Sardesai: It is not an issue? But do you fear it is going to become that a personality-driven campaign? Do you fear that it is going to become a bitter election between the NDA on one side and the UPA on the other and a referendum on the UPA?
Pranab Mukherjee: I don't think there should be any scope of these because election is a totally different plan up altogether. As I mentioned to you the electoral college consists of the elected representatives. The elected representatives are elected on the party lines. Therefore, the political parties decide.
Rajdeep Sardesai: It is not a conscious vote as some suggest.
Pranab Mukherjee: What is the question of conscious vote? What is conscious vote?
Rajdeep Sardesai: That's what Mr Sangma appeals for.
Pranab Mukherjee: When a partyman accepts the decision of the party, is it against his conscience?
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, you are saying this is a very different kind of election that somewhere it cannot become a referendum on a government, on an individual. A Presidential election is about the larger issues confronting the country. Is it?
Pranab Mukherjee: I am just saying the Indian Constitution has clearly led down the role of the President. The Indian Constitution has clearly spelt out the mode of elections and there these things are not permissible.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Pranab da, I must ask you this. You are a practicing Hindu, if I may say so, you do your puja everyday at home, yet you represent the constituency with one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. Is this how you see your political philosophy - deeply religious and yet someone who is ready to reach out to all group?
Pranab Mukherjee: Of course. This is the essence of the Indian philosophy, this is the essence of Indianness because India is a land of multiple religions and each religion lives side by side. Therefore, there is co-existence of various religions, various cultures, various languages. That's the beauty of India and then there is unity amidst diversity.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Is that your philosophy? It is a very Nehruvian philosophy. Do you see yourself as a true old world Nehruvian Congressman?
Pranab Mukherjee: Of course. Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru are the source of inspiration to every Congressman and it will continue to remain so.
Rajdeep Sardesai: The reason why I ask you this is because you are and you have been an active politician. Now, as a President you will be expected to rise above politics, rise above being Congress or any party. How difficult for you is that transition going to be?
Pranab Mukherjee: Of course. But always we are transiting and there is nothing wrong in it. Transition takes place and we have the capacity, system has the capacity to facilitate this transition smoothly. Take the example of the Speaker. Speaker is elected to the House of Lok Sabha or Assembly on a party ticket. Speaker is elected with the support of the majority or the ruling party members to the office of the Speaker. The moment he or she occupies the office, he or she becomes impartial and it is functional. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in it.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, you are saying the moment who step into Rashtrapati Bhavan, should you become the President, you cease to become a Congressman, despite being a career politician all your life?
Pranab Mukherjee: Of course, despite being a political activist within Congress. The moment I, if the electoral college elects me as the President of the Republic, I will have no party.
Rajdeep Sardesai: The reason I asked you this is because often analysts say that has the time come for a non-politician to be the President because when politicians become President, they carry the charge of partisanship. How do you respond to that? Because we have had Presidents like Rajendra babu, Zakir Hussain, Radhakrishnan and after that there was a feeling that the Presidentship became much more politicised after 1969.
Pranab Mukherjee: I would not say that. 1969 was a totally different story altogether. But practical aspect is that electoral college's composition, if you analyse then if a political party has a huge majority in both the Houses of Parliament then naturally it will have a majority in most of the states otherwise this is not possible. So, that party decides and it has happened in India more than often. But, I would not say that any President starting from Rajendra babu to the present incumbent, anyone has indulged in any partisan activities.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Except for Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed?
Pranab Mukherjee: I do not think so.
Rajdeep Sardesai: You don't think so?
Pranab Mukherjee: I do not think so.
Rajdeep Sardesai: If there is a hung Assembly or a hung Parliament, do you strictly believe by the textbook - a President Rule?
Pranab Mukherjee: It is absolutely a theoretical question. You are assuming too many things that I am going to be the President and number two you are assuming that there is going to be a hung Parliament.
Rajdeep Sardesai: I want you to step back. You have seen politics for so many years. Are you worried about the decline of institutions - when you see for example in legislatures, in Parliament repeated adjournments? There is a feeling that people are losing confidence in our Parliamentary institutions because they are not responding to the urges of the time, there is corruption, criminalisation, there are these repeated adjournments.
Pranab Mukherjee: We will have to strengthen our institutions and for strengthening the institutions, we shall have to identify certain areas of deficiencies. When we recently observed the 60th anniversary of Lok Sabha, there one observation of the Leader of the Opposition was very interesting and I liked that observation that it is true that we discuss price rise, it is true that we discuss and attack each other on certain issues between the government and the ruling parties. But it is equally true that when the occasion demands we stand united, we talk together but so far the disruptions and so far the disturbances in Parliament and frequent adjournments, those issues are to be sorted out through discussions, dialogue between the various parties and stakeholders in the House.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Does the rise of coalition politics, the decline of ideology worry you? Does it affect governance you think?
Pranab Mukherjee: Objective of the general elections is not merely to elect a few numbers of legislators but to elect a government and if no political party gets a clear majority then coalition becomes necessary.
Rajdeep Sardesai: So, you see it as a necessity not as a compulsion.
Pranab Mukherjee: It is a necessity and compulsion is coming because you can't go for general elections every day.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Is it a necessary evil?
Pranab Mukherjee: No, I won't say it is a evil. Coalition governments do good work.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Let me ask you. We are a young country dada. Sixty five per cent of India is under the age of 35 but young people don't want to enter politics. The village boy in you was obsessed with politics but the younger generation seems to dislike politicians. They feel that politicians are corrupt, there is criminalisation, there is a cynicism about politics today. What would you tell the younger generation of India today?
Pranab Mukherjee: My simple advice to them is that if you feel something is wrong in the system, you should come, join the system and remove those undesirable elements.
Rajdeep Sardesai: People believe politics is a closed shop, the same old people, few families dominate politics. Can young people enter politics today you think?
Pranab Mukherjee: Truly it is not. If you just shut your eyes and look at the political landscape of this country, large number of politicians who are dominating this today, they are self-made.
Rajdeep Sardesai: You are a self-made politician. There was a book which was written which said a few dozen families now dominate politics today.
Pranab Mukherjee: Quite a large number of and the families you are talking about those are also, they have struggled, they have come up through struggle. In the public life, no one can come up without struggle. I always feel that younger people should come, generational changes should take place and surely we the oldest should make way for that younger people.
Rajdeep Sardesai: May be I am looking into the future but every President puts a stamp on his office. KR Narayanan brought in social justice, APJ Abdul Kalam became the people's President, took along the young, science and technology. Are you already thinking in terms of what is the stamp you are going to put on the office of the President?
Pranab Mukherjee: I think, I should reserve my comment and I will respond to this issue when I will actually become the President.
Rajdeep Sardesai: What will you dada miss most? You have been in public life for so long. You are a practicing politician, now in a sense, if you enter the Rashtrapati Bhavan, you can no longer play active politics. What will you miss most about politics or life when you become the President?
Pranab Mukherjee: I will not lose out anything because there is a limit beyond which you cannot go. So, that is not the issue.
Rajdeep Sardesai: Let me ask you in conclusion. What are you looking forward to most? I remember reading the interview in 'The Economic Times' a few weeks ago, when you spoke about your possible long walks in Rashtrapati Bhavan. You are a morning walker, do you see yourself walking the lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan? Is that something you looking forward to?
Pranab Mukherjee: That is a small thing. I do not know what prompted the interviewer to pick up this. I was telling that earlier I use to walk on the streets, nowadays I walk on the lawns.
Rajdeep Sardesai: You walk on the lawns of your house in Talkatora Road but in little while you may be walking the best lawns in the country.
Pranab Mukherjee: I do not know.
Rajdeep Sardesai: From the little village where you use to walk to school everyday for several kilometers…
Pranab Mukherjee: Yes, 10 kilometers.
Rajdeep Sardesai: You will now be walking perhaps several kilometers in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Pranab Mukherjee it has been a remarkable journey that you had in politics and I can tell you all those who follow politics in this country, journalists, political journalists certainly, will miss you and your wisdom in talking politics with you. Thank you very much Pranab Mukherjee. Thank you for joining us.
Pranab Mukherjee: Thank you Rajdeep for the compliments.