A president preaches: What should a president write on?

It’s more a question of morality and ethics.

Delhi Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, sought my advice on the important subject of the quality of education in our schools and the introduction of special curriculum on happiness. I used one of these occasions to speak my mind to Kejriwal on his penchant for sitting on dharna over frivolous issues. He had been prone to take to the streets to highlight various concerns…I told him that, while all this was fine when he was an activist, if he persisted with the same strategy as CM, it would not add to the dignity of the high office he occupied.” Pranab Mukherjee has occupied the highest office in the land and this quote is from his posthumously published The Presidential Years. Mukherjee was the president from July 25, 2012, to July 25, 2017. He has written books earlier. Since becoming president he wrote The Indira Gandhi Years, The Turbulent Years and The Coalition Years. The Presidential Years has been published now.

For the introduction to this book, Mukherjee says, “I felt goosebumps as I read the lines that administered me the oath. I would now be following in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessors such as Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Husain and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, among others. I had to live up to both the dignity of the office I was assuming and the legacy of the stellar work that the other occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan had left behind.” We have had several presidents. Not every president wrote, and I don’t mean compilations of presidential speeches. More interesting is the question, which presidents wrote books after becoming president? I can think of S Radhakrishnan (religion, science and culture) and APJ Abdul Kalam (several books), more the latter. Both these are names that gave Mukherjee goosebumps. Comparisons are avoidable. Mukherjee’s role as president is one thing (and is for someone else to judge) and what Mukherjee writes about, as president or ex-president, is another. Kalam’s books inspired, especially the young. Mukherjee’s book is about how he perspired.

Should a president, or ex-president write? There is no bar, nor should there be. What should he/she write on? This book has nine essays on working of Parliament, 2014 elections, presidential addresses, Article 356, the judiciary, mercy petitions, foreign policy, presidential visits abroad, interactions with other heads of state/government, demonetisation/GST and working with two prime ministers (Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi).

These essays inform us. But in a book titled The Presidential Years, I don’t think Mukherjee should have written about what had occurred earlier.

“The differences between Mrs Gandhi and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had been widely discussed while an inquiry commission under former CJI J.C. Shah went into the causes of declaring the internal Emergency in 1975, and the subsequent alleged abuse of constitutional powers and authority by the executive.” It is customary not to speak ill of the dead and the good is oft interred with the bones. But if the past is brought in, one can legitimately ask questions about Mukherjee’s role during the Emergency. More importantly, in any government position, it is normal to have conversations that are meant to be private, not divulged in public. That’s true of information too. Should these be disclosed? This isn’t a mere question of legality and the Official Secrets Act. It’s more a question of morality and ethics.

“I do not believe in being unduly judgemental, but certain aspects should be spoken about in the larger interests of the country and I have sought to do so in the course of framing my thoughts in the book.” It is true that many people, having exited government, have revealed such confidences.

I don’t think Mukherjee, having been president and having been conferred the Bharat Ratna, should have done that. This isn’t in conformity of the high dignity associated with either. That conversation with Arvind Kejriwal should have remained a secret. “However, on one occasion I questioned the PM (Dr Manmohan Singh) on an ordinance his government proposed to bring.” As president, it was his right to question. As ex-president, he was wrong to reveal it. He has failed to stick to the high bar set by his illustrious predecessors. There were several other things he could have written about, such as the changes he brought about within the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex.

After having been the president and after having been conferred the Bharat Ratna, the book has an underlying strand of justifying what Mukherjee did with his life and career. It reveals an inner insecurity. I couldn’t help being reminded of the editor’s note to the diaries of James Hacker.

“Readers will have to make their own judgement as to whether any given statement represents (a) what happened; (b) what he believed happened; (c) what he would have liked to have happened; (d) what he wanted others to believe happened; (e) what he wanted others to believe that he believed happened.” Reading it, I got no goosebumps.

The Presidential Years: 2012-2017
Pranab Mukherjee
Pp 280, Rs 695

Bibek Debroy is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

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