I am delighted to be in
Mumbai to participate in the India Today Conclave 2017 as Chief Guest.
Let me begin by complimenting Mr. Aroon Purie and the India Today Group
on its continuing success in organising these Conclaves every year and
in particular, for having assembled this time a wonderful gathering of
eminent minds from various walks of lives, from India as well as abroad.
The topic I have been asked to speak on is "Such a Long Innings:
Politics, Power, Office”. I wonder if the India Today Group was fully
aware of the risk they were taking by proposing such a topic to me. Let
me tell you why.
I started my career as a Lecturer of Political Science in a College near
Kolkata, in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Teaching was my
passion, but little did I know that my passion for teaching would soon
become a headache for my fellow teachers. My classes invariably over ran
the time allotted and encroached into their sessions. As a result, my
colleagues got together and petitioned the Principal requesting that my
classes mandatorily be made the last lecture of the day.
Beginning from those days, teaching and lecturing has remained a fond
undertaking of mine. Having invited me to speak on the topic of my long
innings in public life, I wonder if the organisers realised that I could
speak for a full two days and still not finish all that I would like to
I shall, however, do my best to ensure that the speakers who are to
follow do not suffer on account of me. I intend to confine myself to the
sharing of a few thoughts. For those who want to know more, I request
them to read my memoirs which have been published in two volumes titled
"The Dramatic Decade – Indira Gandhi Years” and "The Turbulent Years:
1980-1996”. The third volume of my memoirs which will conclude with my
election to the Office of the President is also due to be published
Friends, ladies and gentlemen,
My first exposure to politics was at home. My father, the late Kamada
Kinkar Mukherjee, joined the Indian National Congress in response to the
call of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. A staunch nationalist, he was arrested
several times by the British Government during the freedom struggle.
After independence, he served as member of the West Bengal Legislative
Council for two terms from 1952.
I have many childhood memories of local Congress leaders frequently
visiting our modest house made of mud walls and a thatched roof. Quite
often, when the discussions extended through the day, my mother would
prepare a frugal meal for them. Whatever little food was available would
be equally shared and if the number of visitors was large, neighbours
and friends in the village would send vegetables and rice to augment our
It is hence not surprising that when I entered college, the study of
politics and modern Indian history captivated me. During my college
years, I became involved with student politics. Through all of this
period, and till date, Jawaharlal Nehru was a dominant influence on me
as he was on most of my generation.
Nehru was a politician, statesman, institution builder and a nationalist
committed to the plurality that makes India exceptional. He was deeply
committed to building a multicultural, multi-ethnic, secular and
democratic nation. Accommodation as well as inclusion of all sections of
political and intellectual opinion was the key hallmark of his politics.
Nehru’s thinking was of course deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s
A concrete example of the above was the approach adopted by the Congress
Party under Gandhiji and Nehru to the elections held to the Constituent
Assembly in July – August 1946. The Congress nominated 30 persons from
outside the Party to ensure that the Assembly was truly representative.
Liberal representation was given to minorities, Scheduled Castes and
Tribes. 16 eminent persons, including people like Sir Alladi
Krishnaswami Ayyar, Sir N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar (a former civil
servant), H.C. Mookherjee (an educationist), Dr. S. Radhakrishnan
(philosopher and educationist) and H.N. Kunzru (President of the
Servants of India Society) were elected on the Congress ticket to broad
base the Constituent Assembly and enhance participation in the making of
the Constitution. All of them went on to play an important role in the
debates and made significant contribution to the final formulations
which were adopted as part of the Constitution.
Nehru advocated active participation of the people in the governance of
the country. He was a firm believer in freedom of thought and
expression. For Nehru, democracy and civil liberties were not only a
means for bringing about economic and social development, but absolute
values and ends in themselves. In Nehru’s thinking, only a democratic
structure which gave space to various cultural, political and
socio-economic voices could hold India together. Nehru was unhappy with
the banning of the Communist Party in 1948 by Dr. B.C. Roy, then Chief
Minister of West Bengal, even though he was against its policies. His
view was that the Communist Party should be countered through the
established legal processes.
Nehru also strongly discouraged all forms of hero worship. He said
"India is too large a country with too many legitimate diversities to
permit any so-called ‘strong man’ to trample over people and their
ideas.” In fact, as early as in November 1937, he had penned an article
titled ‘Rashtrapati’ under the pseudonym Chanakya in the `Modern Review’
of Calcutta edited by Ramananda Chattopadhyay. In the article, Nehru
accused himself of having all the makings of a dictator and concluded –
"We want no Caesars.”
I highlight the importance of inclusion and accommodation because
throughout my innings, I have tried to follow this path. I have had the
good fortune of making friends across the political spectrum during my
long political career. Sometimes their politics and mine may have
differed. But, that never came in the way of my listening,
understanding, debating and striving to create a consensus on all
Let me add here that I believe former Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee was a leader in the Nehruvian mould. He was an able politician
who added a personal touch to his interaction with all opposition
leaders. He successfully led an NDA coalition comprising different
parties with leaders holding divergent views as Prime Minister for over
6 years. He had many sterling human qualities and always combined
courtesy with political sagacity. I recall how he came across to the
Opposition Bench where I was seated one day before commencement of the
House. I was startled and told him – "Prime Minister, you could have
sent word to me. I would have come to you.” Atalji responded – "This is
a small matter. We are all colleagues.” He then made a special request.
"Do not be aggressive in your criticism of George Fernandes. He appears
strong but is suffering from some serious health issues. Aggressive
criticism may worsen his situation.” Touched by this personal gesture
and out of concern for the welfare of George, I immediately stopped my
attacks on the floor of the House.
I joined active politics in 1966, two years after Nehru had passed away.
I had, therefore, no occasion to meet him in person. However, my
subsequent entry into Parliament in 1969 spurred me to study and
understand Nehru further as well as adopt him as an icon, especially
with regard to Parliamentary matters.
Nehru was at core an institution builder. Respectful of the apex
institution of India’s new democracy, he spoke frequently in Parliament
and used it as a forum to disseminate his views to the public. Despite
the majority enjoyed by the Congress Party, he ensured that the
Parliament always reflected the will of the entire people. He was often
seen sitting patiently through long and sometimes boring debates—and was
an example to his colleagues and young Parliamentarians. Even during the
last few months of his life—when he was ill—he did not miss a single
session and would insist on rising to his feet whenever he had to speak,
to maintain the decorum of the House.
Nehru believed that all programmes and policies of the Government had to
be properly debated, understood, evaluated and then accepted. He sought
to create a consensus on major issues so that people felt motivated and
involved in the task of building the nation as well as safeguarding its
freedom and democratic institutions. He believed that the Parliament was
the primary forum for the holding of such debates and the evolution of a
On the eve of our first general election, The Manchester Guardian wrote
- "If ever a country took a leap in the dark towards democracy it was
India.” If from that situation, India is today admired across the world
as the largest functioning democracy, it is because of the strong
leadership and liberal values provided by Nehru which enabled democracy
take deep root in our country. It is to Nehru that credit goes for
making the Indian Parliament a vibrant, powerful institution;
establishing healthy traditions in Parliamentary practice and for the
building of institutions essential to support our democratic structure
such as an independent judiciary, free press, autonomous Election
Commission and a Comptroller and Auditor General for independent
scrutiny of Government expenditure.
Inspired by Nehru, I have throughout my Parliamentary career, held the
belief that the Parliament is a sacred institution and should be given
the utmost of reverence.
Ladies and Gentlemen, having spoken at length about Nehru, let me now
turn to another strong leader, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was virtually my
mentor. There has been none in our modern history who has been
identified with the idea of power as much as Mrs. Gandhi. There is also
probably none who has wielded power as effectively as Mrs. Gandhi did
over a total period of 16 years as Prime Minister, though, with both
good and not so good consequences.
Mrs. Gandhi was a remarkable personality of the 20th century. She played
a major role in shaping our country’s destiny during a critical period
in history, when India was confronted with many challenges and turmoil.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi was unflinching in her concern for the poor and the
disadvantaged and championed their cause with rare intensity. She was a
crusader for global peace, a just economic order and disarmament.
Courage, fearlessness in action and boldness in decision making was the
unique hallmark of Mrs. Gandhi’s character. She fought relentlessly
against communalism and rose above all divisions of religion, caste,
community and creed during her entire life.
As is well known, the high point in Mrs. Gandhi’s political career was
the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. During this crisis, Indiraji
demonstrated her leadership skills as well as ability to take tough
decisions in the interest of the people and nation. She took tremendous
risk and showed that she was a leader with nerves of steel. She combined
bold and quick decision making with careful planning, adequate
preparation and single-minded focus on the goal of liberating
Mrs. Gandhi’s diplomatic and communication skills were of very high
order. She successfully projected India’s concerns over Pakistan’s
policies and atrocities in East Pakistan which resulted in 10 million
refugees being forced to seek asylum in our country. I was a junior
Member of Parliament at that time. Mrs. Gandhi sent me as a Special
Envoy to France, West Germany and UK to seek support and explain India’s
However, excessive power and popularity led to Mrs. Gandhi making
mistakes. The misadventure of Emergency is an example of this. It is
also believed that the tendency to overcentralise decision making and
the evolution of the Prime Minister’s Office into a powerful centre of
decision making, began from the tenure of Mrs. Gandhi.
It would be wise for succeeding generations of leadership in India to
learn from Mrs. Gandhi’s strengths as well as her mistakes. Our system
of governance is Parliamentary and not Presidential. In a Parliamentary
system, all Ministers are collectively and severally responsible to the
Parliament and through it, to the people. The Prime Minister is ‘Primus
inter Pares’ or first among equals. It is my belief that a country as
complex and diverse as India can be administered only through delegation
of authority. I invite our scholars and political scientists to analyse
the consequences and long term implications of moving away from the
classic tenets of a Parliamentary system.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This brings me to the question of Office. On 25 July, 2012, I was
elected the thirteenth President of India. There is no honour and
privilege greater than to serve as the First Citizen of this
extraordinary country. I have always believed that people of India have
given me far more than I have been able to repay in my long innings of
almost 51 years in public life - 37 years in Parliament and 22 years,
nine months as Minister handling different portfolios.
I also served 14 years as Leader of both Houses of Parliament, 6 years
of the Rajya Sabha and 8 years of the Lok Sabha. I served under four
Prime Ministers, my mentor, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Shri Rajiv Gandhi
briefly and two of my colleagues Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr.
Manmohan Singh. I worked with eight Presidents of the Congress Party,
with around 30 years as member of the highest policy making body of the
party, namely the Congress Working Committee.
I will soon complete five years as President, during which period two
Prime Ministers, Dr. Manmohan Singh and Shri Narendra Modi headed the
Government. I have learnt a lot from the calm wisdom and great
scholarship in the field of economics of Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has
been a colleague and friend of long years. I have also been deeply
impressed by the focussed approach, energy and capacity for hard work of
Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Permit me to make a few submissions motivated purely by a desire to see
our country and its people do the very best. The first issue pertains to
maintaining the sanctity of the Parliament and all our Legislatures. I
speak with some anguish because my entire public life has been defined
by my role in Parliament. My substantive political life began from the
day I entered the Rajya Sabha in 1969 and ended when my membership
automatically ceased upon my being declared elect to the Office of the
President in 2012. Whatever I have learnt, what I have achieved and all
that I have contributed has been through Parliament.
It is, therefore, difficult for me to stand and watch this fundamental
pillar of Indian democracy being rendered ineffective. In my view, there
is absolutely no justification for constant disruption of proceedings,
low level of attendance, shrinking in number of days that the Parliament
and State Legislatures meet as well as the irresponsible manner in which
important legislation, including the Budget and financial proposals, get
passed with hardly any discussion.
When our Legislatures cease to function effectively, the very basis of
our democracy gets undermined. It is through the Parliament and our
Legislative Assemblies that governments are held accountable to the
people. If they become dysfunctional, it results not only in
institutional paralysis but also has ripple effects across the system.
The foremost responsibility of a Parliamentarian is Legislation. It is
most unfortunate that the time devoted to legislation has been gradually
declining in our Parliament. To illustrate, the first Lok Sabha from
1952-57 had 677 sittings in which 319 bills were passed. In comparison,
the fourteenth Lok Sabha from 2004-2009 had 332 sittings and passed just
247 bills. The fifteenth Lok Sabha had 357 sittings and passed 181 bills
while the sixteenth Lok Sabha has so far had only 197 sittings and
passed only 111 bills (upto the 10th session).
Figures are available for the time lost due to
interruptions/adjournments from the Tenth Lok Sabha (1991-96) onwards.
9.95% of total time was lost due to interruptions in the Tenth Lok Sabha,
5.28% in the Eleventh Lok Sabha, 11.93% in the Twelfth Lok Sabha, 18.95%
in the Thirteenth Lok Sabha, 19.58% in the Fourteenth Lok Sabha, a
shocking 41.6% in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha and about 16% in the Sixteenth
Lok Sabha (upto the 10th session).
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is of benefit to both the Ruling Party and the Opposition to break
this vicious cycle of disruptions and disorderly behaviour. I appeal to
political leadership across the spectrum and across the country to
arrive at an agreement that all protests and airing of grievances will
be undertaken only in such manner that the functioning of our Parliament
and Legislatures are not disrupted.
Secondly, the Constitution of India and the values and principles
enshrined in it must at all times remain the lodestar. Constitutional
provisions must be respected in letter and spirit by all of us,
especially those in positions of authority and in public life. Executive
action and legislation must indeed conform to the Constitution but going
beyond that, day to day activities of political parties and all those
associated with it must also conform to the Constitution and its
provisions as interpreted by our judiciary. The tendency of individuals
and groups taking the law into their own hands should be strongly
Thirdly, one of the principal lessons India’s history teaches us is that
united we stand, divided we fall. Our past is replete with examples of
how we have fallen when we failed to act unitedly and how we achieved
wonders when we acted in unison. Our freedom fighters passed the Quit
India Resolution in 1942 and within five years, forced the British to
grant us independence. It will be impossible for us to achieve the
progress that we seek, if in our country man turns against man in the
name of religion, caste or politics.
Fourthly, India has always celebrated diversity and debate. We are a
nation of 1.3 billion people who stand together as one nation, united
under one flag and one Constitution. Over 100 languages are spoken in
India on a daily basis. All major religions and ethnic groups have
co-existed in peace and harmony for centuries. Free speech and
expression is not only guaranteed by our Constitution but has been an
important characteristic of our civilisation and tradition. Indians are
known to be argumentative, but never intolerant. In fact, a Conclave
such as this is one of the best examples of the free debate and
discussion that should take place in our society.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Finally, in a Parliamentary democracy, we must always guard against
majoritarianism. Those in power must involve and take the entire nation
along with them at all times. Consultation and consensus is the best and
often, only way forward. I was extremely happy to hear Prime Minister
Modi speak about the need for humility in the aftermath of his party’s
victory in recent elections to Uttar Pradesh and other State Assemblies.
He asserted that while electoral verdicts are determined on the basis of
‘Bahumat’, the States will be governed on the principle of ‘Sarvamat’.
This is indeed India’s tradition and what the large majority of our
people desire to see in action.
Let me add at the same time that the country also needs a strong
Opposition standing guard. Nehru used to say "I do not want India to be
a country in which millions of people say "yes” to one man, I want a
As I have said in the past, the India of my dreams is one where unity of
purpose results in common good; where Centre and State are driven by the
single vision of good governance; where every revolution is green; where
democracy is not merely the right to vote once in five years but to
speak always in the citizen’s interest; where knowledge becomes wisdom;
where the young pour their phenomenal energy and talent into the
I conclude with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, which in a way
summarises my long innings. Tagore wrote :
"I slept and dreamt that life was joy
I awoke and saw that life was service
I acted and behold, service was joy”