During my own presidency, I had the opportunity to work with two PMs – Dr [Manmohan] Singh (from 25 July 2012 to 26 May 2014), almost two years in the first half of my five-year tenure; and then, from 26 May till the day of my retirement from the office on 25 July 2017, I had Narendra Modi as my PM, for a little more than three years.
The route to prime ministership for the two PMs I worked with was very different. Dr Singh was offered the post by Sonia Gandhi; she had been chosen as the prime ministerial candidate by the Congress Parliamentary Party and other constituents of the UPA, but she declined the offer. The issue of her foreign origin was being heatedly debated in the public domain, and she did not want to create a controversy as a result of the division that had been created out of the matter.
Senior leaders such as Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar had in 1999 insisted that the Congress name an Indian by birth as its prime ministerial candidate and not someone like Sonia Gandhi, who was of foreign origin and had become the party chief. They were expelled and went on to form the NCP.
Once the Congress realised that Sonia Gandhi would not relent, it authorised her to name a candidate. She named Dr Singh and others accepted her choice. He was essentially an economist, though he had spent time in government as a minister and in politics as a Rajya Sabha member. But he had determination and a strong sense of propriety. He had a steely willpower, which he demonstrated during the civil nuclear deal that India finalised with the US, despite opposition from various quarters, including certain parties that supported the government from outside. He did well as a PM.
Modi, on the other hand, became PM through popular choice after leading the BJP to a historic victory in 2014. He is a politician to the core and had been named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate as the party went into campaign mode. He was then Gujarat’s CM and had built an image that seemed to click with the masses. He has earned and achieved the prime ministership.
I had already had a long working relationship with Dr Singh since the mid-’70s. When I was appointed minister of state for revenue and expenditure in the Ministry of Finance in 1974, Dr Singh was chief economic advisor to the finance minister. In 1982, when I took over as the union minister for finance, he was appointed governor of the RBI.
Again, in 1991, when Dr Singh was appointed the finance minister, I was the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and while formulating the eighth FYP, I received the utmost cooperation and support from him. From 1993 onwards, when I concurrently discharged the responsibility of commerce minister, we worked together in expanding India’s international trade. He was one of the cabinet ministers who fully endorsed my approach to establish the WTO after the Marrakesh Declaration of 1994.
Later on, both of us worked closely in the Rajya Sabha as he was leader of Opposition and I was the chief whip of the Congress party. Again, from 2004 onwards, I joined his cabinet, first as defence minister, then as external affairs minister, and finally as finance minister, till 25 June 2012, when I resigned to contest the office of president.
With this long working relationship spanning over five decades from 1970, I had an excellent sense of understanding with Dr Singh, and I believed both of us knew each other so well that there was no scope of any misunderstanding between us as president and PM. Moreover, when I agreed to accept the nomination of the Congress-led UPA as the presidential candidate and was elected by an overwhelming majority, I knew that my active political role had come to an end and that I would have to conduct myself as a constitutional head and not interfere unnecessarily in the domain of the executive. I had done enough of executive work for decades and now it was time to step back and adhere to the constitutional role that a president is expected to perform.
I had resolved to never cross the limits that my new position imposed on me.
I had a clear understanding of the constraints of holding this highest constitutional office and had convinced myself that, as president, I was not supposed to intervene in the day-to-day matters of the executive, since the cabinet, and the cabinet alone, is responsible for that. The president has the right to know and to be informed. It is not his job to mentor anybody. Perhaps this understanding of constitutional propriety helped me have a smooth sailing as the 13th President of the Republic.
However, on one occasion I questioned the PM on an ordinance his government proposed to bring. The recommendation for the ordinance came to my office accompanied by a note from the member in charge (or the relevant minister). I called for an explanation from the said minister. He had in Parliament sought to refer the issue, on which the ordinance was routed to me, to a parliamentary panel for further discussion. I wanted to know the urgency of issuing the proclamation, especially when the member in charge as the author himself did not believe the issue was urgent, since he had wanted it referred to a committee.
I have always held that an ordinance should only be issued in emergency cases when a legislation cannot be delayed any further. Sensing my disquiet, the PM spoke to his minister, who then informed me that the government had decided to withdraw the ordinance. The matter ended there.
My approach to maintaining cordial relations with PM Modi was rooted in the fact that I believe in the parliamentary form of government and its principle. Modi had received a decisive mandate from the people to administer the country. Administrative powers are vested in the Council of Ministers, which the PM heads. Therefore, I did not breach my jurisdiction.
Whenever tricky occasions arose, the issues were resolved. At an event in which PM Modi released a book and I was present, I remarked that it was not that I did not have any differences with him, but that both of us knew how to manage those differences, without bringing them out in public.
As I look back, I can take satisfaction over my performance both as president and earlier as a member of the executive. At all times I have followed the law of the land and held the Constitution supreme. Looking ahead, I believe that the country is firmly on the path of progress despite the many challenges that it faces. We must, however, not allow complacence to set in and endanger the gains that we have had because of the relentless efforts of the founders of our independent nation and the framers of our Constitution.
Excerpted with permission from The Presidential Years: 2012-2017, Pranab Mukherjee, Rupa Publications.