Pranab: Inflation, self-reliance and Reliance

Anirban Ganguly recounts moments from the past when Pranab Mukherjee had to face uncomfortable questions from opposition MPs.

 In view of spiraling prices, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had to make a statement in the House on the price situation. In his characteristic manner, marshalling statistics, he ended his statement by telling the House that ‘the behaviour of prices in our country is a complex matter and requires continuous and close monitoring and surveillance. Even a small decline in the availability of specific items, or an unanticipated change on domestic or international market can easily disturb the prices situation.’

He once again sought ‘the cooperation of this House in continued efforts to contain inflation.’

In the ‘re-discussion’ on the statement that followed one of the young MPs, a former professor in economics, took the FM headlong on his statement. ‘I am bringing the matter to focus the attention of the House because the object of the government is to camouflage, to confuse you and they think that everything is okay.

‘So, I am trying to unravel it for you and show what is the heart of it. The finance minister has been giving periodic assurances to this House and to responsible bodies that the price situation will be controlled, prices will be brought down and then he is not accountable for it. On no occasion has the finance minister come and said, ‘I was wrong, I am sorry, I have not been able to understand the situation and these are the things I am going to do and if I do not control the prices, then honourably I will resign and go away.’

‘That is the way in which I could take him seriously…This is an absentee government we have today. They are all in the tamasha of international meetings while the people of India are suffering under the crushing burden of rising prices.’

Though it sounds uncannily familiar to the situation today, this discussion and repartee took place in the seventh Lok Sabha in the winter of 1983. Pranab, then in his new avatar as FM and Indira Gandhi’s leading confidant was mouthing the same excuses that he continues to do even now under similar circumstances. The young MP, Subramaniam Swamy, is back in action attacking the government in much the same vein and garnering support for Pranab’s opponent in the presidential race. India’s economy and politics seems to have completed one more of its cycles and Pranab has witnessed it all.

Despite the ‘statesman aura’ that Pranab is being imbued with today, not all his moments in Parliament were covered with glory, golden rhetoric or flourish. For those who remember it, Pranab had his ‘crocodile’, ‘fiasco’ and ‘black money’ moments even then, when opposition stalwarts caught him on the back foot, fenced him down and cried ‘touché‘.

It would be interesting, for example, to know that Madhu Dandavate, veteran socialist, brought a privilege motion on December 2, 1983 against Pranab accusing him of 13 times repeating to Parliament wrong information in connection to questions on ‘Purchase of Shares by Non-Resident Indians in Various Companies’ (27.7.83), ‘U.K. Companies who sought shares of Reliance Textiles’ (26.8.83) etc, between July and December 1983. Minutes before Dandavate raised the privilege issue, Pranab hurriedly tabled the correction, thus averting the motion.

A charged up Dandavate expressed shock that from September 16 when the London correspondent of the Calcutta Telegraph disclosed that some of the companies in the list shared with Parliament ‘were not all registered’ and that one of them had gone under liquidation eight years back, no action was taken to correct the misstatement till December 2 when the threat of his privilege motion loomed large and real.

Dandavate was surprised that when he actually tabled the privilege notice, his notice was ‘discussed through the editorial of the Times of India, was also commented upon by the Telegraph‘ but that he was the only ‘poor soul who had not got an opportunity to say something in the matter.’

Having done a massive background work and information gathering Dandavate decided to force Pranab to a discussion through a ‘calling attention’ motion on ‘Reported Irregularities in Investment by Non-Resident Indians in Reliance Textiles’ on December 14, 1983 and bring to the notice of the House the fictitious character of  companies in the list provided by the FM.

Chitta Basu of the Forward Bloc, Satish Agarwal of the BJP and Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI-M all having a done a great deal of homework participated in the motion of pinning the FM down.

Chitta Basu sought Pranab’s assurance that the ‘government will exercise strict vigilance and see that those ill gotten money or black money cannot get any chance of being turned into white money through Indian nationals’ and said that it was evident that all ‘eleven companies are created by bogus people.’

Satish Agarwal again placing a detailed questionnaire regarding the listed companies asked Pranab not to misjudge the members’ intentions, it was clear, ‘We are simply cautious. If there is some ill-gotten money coming through certain source, then it is our duty as Members of Parliament of the opposition to draw attention to all those facts.’ Agarwal, much to Pranab’s chagrin, demanded the setting up of a parliamentary committee to investigate the issue.

In a masterly speech full of legal positions Somnath wanted to know the truth and asked Pranab whether it is true that ‘all these companies have been registered for only one client? Whoever he is, I don’t want to take that name…This was a dangerous proposition.’

Madhu Dandavate’s, however, was the most masterly participation in the debate. He spoke for 40 minutes and divulged a huge amount of information that even astounded the habitually nimble-minded Pranab. But what perhaps touched the rawest nerve was Dandavate’s remark made at the beginning of his speech,  hoping that the ‘Finance minister in replying to my queries and queries of colleagues will give evidence that he is the minister for self-reliance and not minister for Reliance. I hope all queries that will be made will be adequately met and the details will be given, which unfortunately we could not get through more than 13 questions that we have tabled in both houses of parliament.’

Finally, Dandavate finished his salvo throwing a challenge to Pranab — by then busy rattling away his points — ‘Give us one month’s time, we will get you all the skeletons from the cupboard of the relevant company.’

Pranab, it appears from the records, wisely chose not to accept that challenge!

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