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Mainstream, VOL L, No 32, July 28, 2012

Skeletons in Pranab Mukherjee’s Cupboard

Tuesday 31 July 2012, by Tapan Bose


This article was written much before the presidential poll but refused publication by several newspapers. Finally it appeared in Kashmir Times (July 18, 2012) from where it is being reproduced with due acknowledgement. 
— Editor

That Pranab Mukherjee will move into Rashtarpati Bhavan after the election in July is a foregone conclusion. He has the blessing of Ms Sonia Gandhi and the support of several UPA partners, the Hindu Rightwing Shiv Sena, the middle roader JD (U) and the Leftist CPI-M. As he says the presidential election is a “numbers game”. The question to ask is: should the election of the Head of State be a mere numbers game controlled by “party whip” or should the members of the Electoral College be free to vote according to their conscience?

The President and the Party Boss

The numbers game began in 1967, when the united Opposition, under the banner of the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, nominated former Chief Justice of India, K. Subba Rao. Justice Rao was the author of the famous Golaknath versus State of Punjab judgment wherein he ruled that Fundamental Rights could not be amended by Parliament.

The Congress party, led by Mrs Indira Gandhi, had lost control in the “Hindi belt”. She opposed Subba Rao. Drummed up support of the Left parties and other allies and got Dr Zakir Hussain elected as the President. President Zakir Hussain died on May 3, 1969. In August 1969, defying the party leadership, Mrs Gandhi supported the candidature of V.V. Giri in the presidential election. The leadership of the official Congress issued a whip to all party members to vote for Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. Mrs Gandhi appealed to all Congress MPs and MLAs to vote according to their “conscience”. V. V. Giri was elected. Mrs Gandhi was expelled from the Congress. She walked away with 210 members of the Congress Parliamentary Party and split the Congress into two. However, Mrs Gandhi’s commitment to freedom of conscience evaporated soon. Inner-party democracy was replaced by the “High Command”.

Since then Presidents of India have been selected by the party boss and elected on the basis of the party whip. I believe it is unrea-sonable to expect a person to completely severe all relationship with the political party of which he/she was a lifelong member or not to be be-holden to the “High Command”. As we know, sycophancy was clearly visible in some cases. President Fakhruddin Ahmed was a Minister in the Cabinet in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s government. He moved directly from the Cabinet room to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. On the night of June 24/ 25, 1975, when Mrs Gandhi deemed that declaring a state of “Emergency” was necessary as the country’s security was threatened by “internal disturbances”, the President did not ask any question. He signed on the dotted line.

Indira Gandhi’s Man

On June 29, Pranab Mukherjee told NDTV that Indira Gandhi was his mentor. Referring to Mrs Indian Gandhi he said: “She built me up. She gave me the opportunities. I became Finance Minister at the age of 46-47. She allowed me to preside over the Cabinet in her absence, when there were many senior to me.” He was the Minister of Revenue and Banking (Independent Charge) from December 1975 to March 1977. Pranab Mukherjee, like Fakhurddin Ali Ahmed, followed every order of Mrs Gandhi most diligently. The Shah Commission indicted Pranab Mukherjee and others for carrying out the illegal orders of her son, Sanjay Gandhi. The Commission accused Pranab Mukherjee of gross misuse of the provisions of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and the Defence of India Rules
He used the CBI to harass, intimidate and arrest businessmen and political opponents. Some of his victims were Prabhat Kar and D. P. Chaddah, President and General Secretary of the All India Bank Employees’ Association, Baroda Rayon, Bajaj and Mukund Group of Industries. The Shah Commission found that Mukherjee was involved in altering the notes on the file bearing No: 686/100/75-CUS VIII/75 to extend the illegal incarceration of Gayatri Devi and Bhavani Singh on verbal orders of Mrs Gandhi. The Shah Commission found that the enquiry into the identities of two women shareholders of then Sanjay Gandhi owned Maruti Ltd. was abruptly halted by the orders of the Chairman of the Revenue Board, which was controlled by Pranab Mukherjee, the then Minister of Revenue and Banking. On her return to power in 1980, Mrs Gandhi destroyed almost all the copies of the Shah Commission’s report. However, a few copies escaped. The Supreme Court Bar Libraby has a copy. In 2011, a former Member of the Lok Sabha, Era Sezhian, published a copy (Aazhi Publishers, Chennai). Mrs Gandhi also withdrew the FIR against Mukherjee lodged on recommendations of the L.P. Singh Committee. The police investigation into some of the misdeeds of Mukherjee and others was halted. She rewarded him for loyalty by making him the Finance Minister.

Pranab Mukherjee and Rajiv Gandhi

After Indira Gandhi’s death, Mukherjee was forced to leave the Congress on the issue of leadership. Apparently Mukherjee had staked his claim for the post of the Prime Minister because of his seniority in the Cabinet. Rajiv was angry and after 1984 elections he did not include Pranab Mukherjee in his Cabinet. Mukherjee left the Congress and formed a new political party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Con-gress. Mukherjee made his peace with Rajiv Gandhi and rejoined the Congress in 1989.
Seemingly Mukherjee has erased this episode from his memory. His personal webpage does not mention anything about this period. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, Mukherjee was re-nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1993. Mukherjee’s first foray into direct contest in 1980 was a disaster. His second attempt was successful. He was elected for the first time to the Lok Sabha from Jangipur in Murshidabad district of West Bengal.

Pranab Mukherjee and Dhirubhai Ambani

Did Pranab Mukherjee favour Dhirubhai Ambani? Difficult to answer. His relationship with Dhirubhai goes back a long way. There are allegations that as the Minister of Commerce he gave a large number of export-import licences to Reliance, while other applicants got little. Those were the days of the licence raj.
Apparently, whenever the government deci-ded to grant such licences, Reliance industries was the first to know and submitted their app-lications for import of Polyester staples much before others. As the licences were allotted on “first-come-first-served” basis, it was the Ambanis who benefited the most. There were also perceived preferential treatments of the import duties on the ingredients of polyester, such as Reliance vis-a-vis Bombay Dyeing

Then there was the case of the Isle of Man companies (1979-82). The dummy companies of the Isle of Man and the mysterious churning of the Reliance shares. Apparently a UK based person, known as “Mr. Shah”, had invested US $ 220 million through 11 bogus companies registered in Isle of Man like Crocodile, Lota and Fiasco. In 1982, the Bombay Stock Exchange was closed for three business days rattled by Ambani’s bear-bull game in the trading of Reliance shares. Reliance industries virtually controlled the BSE. Madhu Dandavate in 1983 brought a privilege motion against Mukherjee for giving wrong information to Parliament about the purchase of shares of Reliance Textiles by “UK based companies”. Mukherjee continued to protect the identity of the persons behind these UK companies. Many people feel that his flourish in politics was a result of the patronage he received from the late Dhirubhai Ambani. But then the same may be said about the entire Congress party, Mrs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
After Pranab Mukherjee becomes the Presi-dent these stories will be buried deep. One expects the President of India to be a person of integrity. Someone who has earned the respect of the nation for his/her deeds. It would appear that the Congress and UPA, uncertain of their political future in the next general election, would like to have a friend in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. As we know, in the event of a “hung House” the President decides who to ask to form the government.

(Courtesy: Kashmir Times)

The author, a noted human rights activist, is the General Secretary of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights.

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