We Want No Caesars
The former President of India looks back to look ahead at the challenges that can disrupt a democracy's dialogues.
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 a member of the West Bengal Legislative Council for two terms.
I have many childhood memories of local Congress leaders visiting our modest house. Quite often, when the discussions extended through the day, my mother would prepare a frugal meal for them. It is hence not surprising that when I entered college, the study of politics and modern Indian history captivated me. I became involved with student politics. Through all of this, and till date, Jawaharlal Nehru was a dominant influence on me.
A Nehruvian Indian
Nehru was a politician, statesman, institution-builder and a nationalist committed to the plurality that makes India exceptional. In his thinking, only a democratic structure, which gave space to various cultural, political and socio-economic voices, could hold India together. Nehru also strongly discouraged all forms of hero worship. As early as November 1937, he had penned an article titled 'Rashtrapati' under a pseudonym, Chanakya, in the Modern Review of Calcutta, edited by Ramananda Chattopadhyay, accusing himself of having all the makings of a dictator, and concluded: "We want no Caesars."
Of Human Bondage
I have had the good fortune of making friends across the political spectrum. Sometimes their politics and mine differed, but that never came in the way of my listening, understanding, debating and striving to create a consensus on all important issues. I believe former PM Atal Bihari 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. 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."
Hubris of Power
Mrs Indira Gandhi was virtually my mentor. There is 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. The high point in her political career was the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. She took tremendous risk and showed that she was a leader with nerves of steel. However, excessive power and popularity led to Mrs Gandhi making mistakes. The misadventure of Emergency is an example of this. It would be wise for succeeding generations of leadership in India to learn from Mrs Gandhi's strengths and mistakes. Our system of governance is parliamentary, not presidential. In a parliamentary system, all ministers are collectively and severally responsible to Parliament and, through it, to the people. The PM is primus inter pares or first among equals. A country as complex and diverse as India can be administered only through delegation of authority.
The Challenges to Our Democracy
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 pertains to maintaining the sanctity of Parliament and all our legislatures. There is absolutely no justification for constant disruption of proceedings, low level of attendance, shrinking in number of days that Parliament and state legislatures meet. Secondly, the Constitution and the values and principles enshrined in it must at all times remain the lodestar. Thirdly, one of the principal lessons India's history teaches us is that united we stand, divided we fall. It will be impossible for us to achieve the progress we seek if, in our country, man turns against man in the name of religion, caste or politics.
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 daily. All major religions and ethnic groups have coexisted in peace and harmony for centuries. Free speech and expression are not only guaranteed by our Constitution, but have been an important characteristic of our civilization and tradition. Indians are known to be argumentative, but never intolerant. Those in power must involve and take the entire nation along. I was happy to hear PM Modi speak about the need for humility in the aftermath of his party's victory in recent elections in Uttar Pradesh and other state assemblies. He asserted that while electoral verdicts are determined on the basis of bahumat (majority), the states will be governed on the principle of sarvamat (consensus). The country needs a strong Opposition standing guard.
The Dream of India
The India of my dreams is one where unity of purpose results in common good; where Centre and the States 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 summarizes my long innings.
"I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy."