I must add a precautionary disclaimer at the outset. I have not yet had the opportunity to peruse the second volume of Pranab Mukherjee's memoirs which has recently been released. The only information on its contents that I have is through the excerpts that have appeared in the Fourth Estate.
Even more fundamental is for me to state that I hold the position of the Head of the Indian State in the highest veneration and although I do believe there have been some occupants who have not lived upto the standards that are required and there have been others who actions have served to debase the high office, I still believe that the one individual who possibly does or should symbolize the entire nation is the President of India. Hence one has to exercise major discretion to apportion even minor criticism to the august occupant.
When the first volume was published, I had penned a column in this very portal expressing my unease over a sitting president penning his memoirs. I was even more distressed to note a huge advert in the Hindustan Times where the President's picture was posted alongside the facsimile of the book and the name of the publishers.
I have had the occasion to observe the Indian political scene for over five decades now and cannot recall any such precedent. Dr. Rajendra Prasad remained in office for twelve years and while there were numerous attempts by different publishers to get him to update his Autobiography, he refused to do so; the memoirs he had written way back in 1946 have no details of his role in the Constituent Assembly which came into existence much later and the presidency. Dr. Radhakrishnan, a prolific author also desisted from publishing his account as the president.
Let us examine the international precedents. There is an unwritten convention in the United States that prevents sitting presidents from publishing their accounts. To the best of my knowledge, no US president has deviated from this practice.
David Ben-Gurion was a major international figure when he occupied the prime minister's position in Israel. His counsel was frequently sought by many world leaders and his pronouncements not infrequently generated controversies not just in the countries antagonistic to the State of Israel but even within its borders. It was said that here was a man who had more enemies within Israel than outside it. Unsurprisingly many leading publishers were willing to dish out a huge advance for his accounts. Ben-Gurion was uncompromising. He believed that the position he enjoyed enabled him far greater access to power than his opponents hence it would be patently unfair on his part to take advantage of this lop sided power equation. The publishers approached him again when he demitted office and his response was that he would feel distinctly uneasy writing about his colleagues who were no longer alive. Instead he encouraged the publishers to approach historians who could analyse the official documents.
Sir Anthony Eden had a distinguished career as a Foreign Secretary and a not so distinguished career as a Prime Minister because of the Suez crisis .He was again approached by several leading publishing houses to pen his version and as he states very clearly in his memoirs published in the early 1960's (my late father bought a copy for then a huge sum of Rs. 60), he makes it explicit that he was adamant about not making his account public until he had relinquished office. David Lloyd George, one of the foremost figures of early twentieth century had adopted a similar position.
The salient question here is whether I concur with this convention that has governed this practice. I must state unequivocally that I am sympathetic to the viewpoint. The head of the state /government is privy to a huge amount of information not available to those outside the corridors of power hence is in a position to exercise undue influence. In India, senior bureaucrats and diplomats are prevented from penning their memoirs while in office for this very reason. It is therefore nonsensical to exempt the holders of the top office from this obligation. Therefore much to my discomfiture, I found the publication of the two volumes and their blatant advertisement in a very bad taste. Pranab's daughter Sharmishtha ,a Congress (I) spokesperson defended this along with the CEO of Rupa publications on the ground that Pranab's account was contribution to Indian history without credibly explaining why it had to be published while he was till in office.
I first came to know of Pranab Mukherjee during the Emergency when he is supposed to have played a very questionable role in promoting Sanjay Gandhi to ingratiate himself to Indira. He expectedly lost his deposit in the 1977 Lok Sabha polls and was summoned by the Shah Commission to present his version. Despite numerous summons,he refused to depose on the advice of his leader Indira Gandhi and a criminal case was registered against him. Fortunately for him, the Janata Party government proved completely inept and afflicted with the same power hungry virus. It fell and one of the first actions of Indira was to withdraw the criminal cases against Pranab and others including herself enabling him to commence new innings.
The young generation who comprise a majority now have scant memories of the dark Emergency days. But my own generation which had its political baptism in that era can never forget it. Political equations have been complicated somewhat as many of the main culprits of the Emergency era have gravitated to other political formations- so much so that it would be difficult to identify a major political party that does not have an Emergency tainted at its helm. I would therefore concur with Pranab when he implies that blaming just the Congress (I) for that dark period would be unjust. Bal Thackeray of Shiv Sena openly expressed his admiration for Sanjay Gandhi's methods. But to present this extra constitutional bully with a saintly halo was deeply galling at least to my generation that had put up a struggle against dictatorship.
I also distinctly recall the interview that Pranab provided to Rajdeep Sardesai during his presidential campaign. He made an attempt to defend Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed which very nearly made me fall of my chair.
If the excerpts are anything to go by, Pranab has taken many unworthy shots at his opponents some of whom are not even alive without providing any concrete evidence except his own word. This would have been more acceptable after his presidential term; the president enjoys presidential immunity from legal process.
One however would have to give credit to Pranab for cultivating goodwill in the Fourth Estate which has served to insulate him from media criticism that normally come the way of Indian politicians. I note with interest that even the otherwise aggressive Arnab Goswami has chosen to ignore the violation of this norm by President. However I sincerely hope at least some journalist would ask him why he did not throw any light on why his government confiscated all available copies of the Shah Commission Report and had them burnt; it had identified Pranab as a culprit! For the record, I read the Report only in Australia where it is available in the Australian National Library. Surely making this document available and an explanation as to why it was vanquished would have a been a stellear contribution to impartial 'historical scholarship."
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