A little more than two months have gone by since Pranab Mukherjee became the thirteenth President of India. What Mr Mukherjee may have achieved in that august position in the past few weeks will certainly be of some interest to the nation. But of much greater interest, and therefore the subject matter of this column, is how the Congress has managed its alliance politics in this period without the services of Mr Mukherjee, who clearly has not been available to the party after moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Between May 2004 and July 2012, Mr Mukherjee played the crucial role of troubleshooter for the Congress. Within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), he was the key Congress representative who would be entrusted with the most critical and sensitive tasks, be it assuaging Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, sending out the right message to Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, or stroking the hurt ego of M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Mr Mukherjee had the stature, experience and the skills of shepherding the Congress through all those troubles arising out of alliance politics.
That was not all. He was a key member of the Union Cabinet and, in UPA-II, he held the finance ministry. In addition, he was heading a large number of groups of ministers entrusted with the task of resolving policy issues the UPA government faced from time to time. Indeed, so preoccupied was he with his political task of alliance management that he was often accused of not having enough time to pay adequate attention to the finance ministry. This even affected the functioning of the groups of ministers headed by Mr Mukherjee. However, that barely affected his image as one of the most important political leaders, critical to managing the UPA and the government.
Not surprisingly, this was the big concern shared by Congress leaders when Mr Mukherjee’s name was put in consideration as a candidate for the Presidency earlier this year. Who would manage the Congress’ alliance partners? Who would oversee the running of the groups of ministers? And who would be the finance minister in his absence? But, two months after Mr Mukherjee has moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan, many Congress leaders may be wondering if those concerns were needlessly blown out of proportion.
The story of the past two months is not just how the Congress leadership has managed to weather the political storm over corruption scandals that had virtually immobilised the government for the past several months. The real story is how the Congress handled the situation in the past two months without the presence or services of its most reputed manager of political crisis. Looking back, you might even wonder if indeed Mr Mukherjee’s importance and role in managing alliance politics for the past so many years was exaggerated.
Undoubtedly, the Congress has shown greater planning, thinking and action in tackling both the economic and political challenges in the past two months. It’s true that the crisis facing the Congress had reached a point where its leaders must have had no option other than what they did and that is what helped the party look a little more coherent and purposive in its actions in the past few weeks. But, credit should also go to the Congress’ leaders who showed some deft political management. The prime minister and the new finance minister set up new committees to present to the government their reports on how the economic crisis it faced needed to be tackled. Those reports were used by these leaders to convince others in the party of the need to take hard steps like raising the price of petroleum products or allowing foreign direct investment in retail to send a positive signal to global investors. They even raised the spectre of the 1991 crisis if no steps were taken.
The question of Mamata Banerjee’s threat to pull out of UPA was also considered and the Congress leadership concluded that it was time to part ways, instead of succumbing to any pressure of alliance politics. Alternative support from other regional parties was explored and ensured. Remember all this happened with no Pranab Mukherjee around to provide his valuable advice or guidance. Even today Congress insiders wonder if the party would have gone ahead with its series of steps that the government took last month or whether it would have junked the Trinamool Congress, if Mr Mukherjee had been around.
At another level, the government was seen to be undoing some of the damage that Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget had caused, in undermining the global investors’ confidence in the Indian economy. An expert committee’s recommendation that the general anti avoidance rules on taxes should be postponed by three years was made public. Retrospective amendments to tax laws were being reviewed. Steps to expedite decisions on disinvestment of government equity in public sector units and the goods and services tax were initiated.
All this has changed the agenda for popular discourse. Corruption is still an issue, but what gets debated now is not corruption, but whether diesel prices should have been raised by 12 per cent or less. What’s more, UPA is looking beyond Mamata Banerjee, without allowing itself to be blackmailed by its alliance partners. UPA’s new managers are beginning to realise that running the alliance without Pranab Mukherjee may not be very difficult.