Some political pundits interpret it as a grandmaster’s move on the political chessboard of the country in the final run-up to General Election 2019. But in your editor’s ’umble opinion, the conferment by the BJP-led NDA government of the Bharat Ratna — independent India’s highest civilian award — upon former President Pranab Mukherjee has devalued the award.
As editor of Businessworld, your correspondent was the very first journalist to interview Mukherjee, a former lecturer in a minor college in Calcutta and a peripheral Congress leader, after he was appointed Union finance minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet in 1982. During the interview, I was astonished by Mukherjee’s utter lack of ideological backbone and muddled economics. In office, Mukherjee earned a notorious reputation as the ‘minister for Reliance’, for presenting Union budgets widely reported to have been dictated to him by Dhirubhai Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries and the country’s most influential business tycoon. However after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, Mukherjee made the costly mistake of making plain his ambition to succeed her as prime minister, and was thrown out of the Congress party by her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi. But after public atonement, he was readmitted into the party shortly before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1989.
Mukherjee’s fortunes revived after the Congress Party unexpectedly formed the UPA-I government at the Centre and he was re-appointed Union finance minister. But he was a malcontent in the Cabinet, never quite reconciled to his supersession by prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. Worse, he over-ruled a Supreme Court verdict in favour of the British telecom company Vodafone and under the aegis of the income tax department, promulgated the GAAR (general anti-avoidance rule) which would have endangered foreign investment inflows into India. In 2012 Mukherjee was kicked upstairs to the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In 2016, the Modi government demonetised and devalued the Indian rupee. Now the Bharat Ratna by awarding it to a mediocrity.