Commerce Minister Pranab Mukherjee talks to Ketan N Tanna
about his differences with the Finance Ministry
Votary of the middle path
I am a religious person and ardent reader of Chandi paath. An important aspect of Chandi is that whatever we are seeing or doing is nothing but maya (illusion). Nothing is everlasting. When I fell out of favour, I used to wait eagerly for even a small invitation from block Congressmen. Now I have to decline prestigious international invitations. I know a day will come when I will be out of power again. I know how it feels to be isolated. So I have tried to detach myself from everything,” says Pranab Mukherjee with a pensive smile.
It is Wednesday afternoon, and Commerce Minister Pranab Mukherjee is taking a break from the hectic election campaign, in his Udyog Bhavan office. The Assembly elections results are to come in after two days- and Pranab Mukherjee has reasons to look forward to it. For, he has played a key role in drafting the election manifestos of the Congress, besides formulating the election strategies and chairing the campaign committee meetings.
Glad in grey suit, Pranab Mukherjee is starting hard at the walls of Room No 135 in Udyog Bhavan. In addition, he is confident about the Assembly election results: “We are confident that the Congress will do well. Congress has put the country’s economy on rails and provided stability.” Two days later, the election results showed his poll predictions to be completely off the mark.
If the Congress is defeated in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, will it mean the Prime Minister’s, policies have not found favour with the electorate. “No, No,” Mukherjee protests, “If the party does not perform well, it means the State Congress has not performed well. It is not a reflection on the performance of the federal Government. That can be gauged only from the results of a General Election.”
Mukherjee’s fortunes have indeed been on an upswing. Election duties apart, he is the only minister in Rao’s Cabinet to hold two posts- Commerce Minister and vice-chairman of the Planning Commission. He is now counted among the Prime Minister’s trusted lieutenants.
Mukherjee has come a long way from the days when Rajiv Gandhi expelled him from the Congress. Mukherjee promptly launched his own party, which turned out to be a non-starter.
Mukherjee winces when he talks about his grandiose dream of providing an alternative to the Congress. He explains, “It was a fiasco. My attempt to create a political outfit was simply frustrated. People refused to buy my proposition that I was a better Congressmen. In retrospect, I am just not cut out for it. Anyway, why should people have chosen a diluted version of the Congress when the original was available?”
It is a measure of his indispensability that Mukherjee was readmitted to the Congress by Rajiv Gandhi, thanks to the efforts of santosh Mohan Dev. Mukherjee reminisces, “Santosh Mohan Dev was the one who arranged my initial meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. After my expulsion, I never attempted to contact Rajiv Gandhi, and nor did he. No, it was not an ego problem. Maybe it is just my nature.”
The first sign that Mukherjee was on a comeback trail came when Rajiv Gandhi asked him to head the Congress campaign committee for the 1991 Lok Sabha lections. Since then he has not looked back. Many believe that had Rajiv Gandhi been alive today, the coveted post of Finance Minister would have been Mukherjee’s.
Even today critics insinuate that Mukherjee longs to be the Number2 in Rao’s Cabinet and, at the very least, still has his eyes on the Finance Ministry. Mukherjee bristles with indignation, “It is all speculation. I have known Narasimha Rao for 20 year and I am happy at what I am doing.”
His protestations apart, the fact are the Finance Ministry and the Commerce Ministry is at loggerheads over several important issues. For instance, when the Ministry ended the International Price Reimbursement Scheme (IPRS), which was aimed at helping Indian engineering good exporters to stay globally competitive, the Commerce Ministry was palpably upset. Mukherjee explains, “There has been a tremendous decline in the export growth. Unemployment will increase. You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound. You cannot end subsidies and then expect export growthâ€¦. But I do understand the difficulties of the Finance Minister.”
Mukherjee is, similarly, strongly opposed to the growing trend of removing restrictions on the import of consumer goods. The Finance Ministry feels this would make the domestic industry efficient, but Mukherjee feels otherwise. Says he, “Every year, items are removed from the negative list and put on Open General License (OGL) list. But if you remove the restrictions on import of consumer goods, small scale industries will be wipe out. Do you think that powerloom/handloom industries will survive? I will not allow that to happen”.
The pace of economic liberalization is yet another contentious issue between the Commerce Ministry and Finance Ministry. The latter much to its discomfiture has been forced to traverse the “middle path” at the Prime Minister’s order. And Mukherjee endorses the move wholeheartedly. He explains, “The problem with some Indians is that they think that they are the only Indians around. Our total population is 900 million, and the middle class constitutes about 250 million. Can you ignore the remaining 650 million? Formulating economic politics is not like delivering classroom lectures.”
Mukherjee says he has his own reasons for adopting a cautious approach. He argues, “You talk about closing down units. Under laissez-faire, you want to hire and fire. Ok, do it. What next? Five million will be on the street. What will you do? You will spend more on law and order. If there is tremendous social tension, there will be other fallouts. Reforms are not an academic clichÃ© or ideological propaganda. You will have to talk to people, trade unions, adopt the path of least resistance.”
The path of least resistance suits Narasimha Rao just fine. No wonder Rao went out of his way to accommodate Mukherjee even after Chief Election Commissioner TN Sheshan created obstacles in his election to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal. And critics and admirers simply wonder: What makes Mukherjee tick, especially, as some point out, he is incapable of winning even a municipal election, thus preferring the backdoor election, thus preferring the backdoor entry to Parliament?
He now wears a hurt and explains, “Election to Rajya Sabha means support of at least 42 MLAs, and Do you think that is backdoor entry? L K Advani was a Rajya Sabha member for a long time, so was Chandra Sekhar.” Yes, yes, but what makes you tick? I insist. Mukherjee recites a Hindi couplet, “Kabni gharra sar per to khabi pav par (In life, sometimes the pitcher will be on your head and sometimes at you feet).”
By Ketan Tanna