The furore over Manmohan Singh’s Oxford speech in 2005 confirmed that most Indians dislike acknowledging we owe anything to British rule. I felt that again during NDTV’s coverage of Pranab Mukherjee’s swearing-in when Vishnu Som, the anchor, ever so gently resisted my observation that the pageantry was overpoweringly viceregal.
It’s another matter that France’s new president, Francois Hollande, drove in a mini-convoy of modest cars that stopped at Paris’ traffic lights to his swearing-in. As I assured Som, my comment was neither critical nor complimentary. It was a reminder of how much our public life draws on British processes and precedents. If India defines modernity, as the new president said in an inspiring speech that went to the heart of the challenge of democratic development, that modernity owes not a little to the traditions of Westminster and Whitehall.
At the height of his quarrel with Rajiv Gandhi, Giani Zail Singh confessed that the problem was of communication. We were sitting in elegant armchairs with an occasional table and an old-fashioned radio set between us. Pointing to my chair, the president said Indira Gandhi sat there on her regular visits to Rashtrapati Bhavan and chatted as we were chatting. (He might have been describing The Queen starring Helen Mirren! No one knows what is discussed during those weekly meetings between monarch and prime minister. No one else is present. No notes are taken.) Zail Singh claimed Rajiv ended the practice. The president learnt what was happening from the radio.
Manmohan Singh is no stranger to informal exchanges that keep governmental wheels turning smoothly. When P V Narasimha Rao and he finalised their reform package, they showed it first to L K Advani. As I wrote in Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, “Advani gave his blessings. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh did not bring it up in cabinet, fearing alarmist newspaper headlines, a hue and cry in Parliament and resistance in the ranks.” Today, there would also be shrieking television anchors, though not Som. He is far too sedate to be one of TV’s hysterical hounds.
Mukherjee, too, must appreciate that working with those who are not personal friends and may even be professional rivals demands goodwill. He also learnt from Indira Gandhi, of whom he speaks with dewy-eyed emotion and whose portraits above his desk in Talkatora Road and in his booklined study in Greater Kailash II show her at her most attractive, that some situations demand formality.
As mindful of egos and ambitions as of protocol, Mrs Gandhi put it down in writing that Mukherjee would preside over Cabinet meetings in her absence. Anointing him Number Two avoided the confusion of Sharad Pawar sitting beside the prime minister one day and finding A K Antony there the next.
Given Manmohan Singh’s reflective disposition and easy low-keyed conversational style, communication between Race Course Road and Raisina Hill should present no problem. Both men are realists who see politics as the art of the possible. Neither chases chimeras. Despite irritants and distractions, they are likely to make any situation in which they find themselves work.
Mukherjee’s pragmatism was evident in 1982 not because he set the reform ball rolling by inviting NRI investment in Indian companies a decade before Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, but because he quickly realised it was an idea before its time. Readers may recall the uproar when Swraj Paul, already British but not yet ennobled in ermine and coronet, bought Rs 13 crores’ equity in DCM and Escorts. Jealous of their patch, industrialists, media magnates and politicians closed ranks with J R D Tata muttering nervously, “I could be next” as he led protesting tycoons to North Block. Mrs Gandhi’s wry comment was that India’s free market industrialists demanded protection “just as bootleggers are said to favour prohibition”.
Obstructed on every front, Paul came bitterly to regret the costly, protracted and ultimately fruitless venture. Mukherjee held his peace. Talleyrand’s aphorism that speech is given to man to conceal his thoughts might have been coined for him. Yet, even the failure marked a psychological breakthrough in the armour of India’s complacent self-sufficiency.
We can expect the new presidency to be dignified. And when it comes to an end, I would like to think Pranab Mukherjee will make a graceful exit without the vulgarity of a “Former President of India” signboard on his post-presidential bungalow or another unseemly wrangle over excess land. That would betray the grandeur of Wednesday’s Raj ceremonial and expose the tawdriness of the indigenous participation in public life.