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Legal battle likely AFTER Pranab becomes President

July 12, 2012 11:37 IST

The Opposition says Pranab Mukherjee, who was the chairman of the Indian Statistical Institute Council, did not quit that office before filing the papers for his Presidential run.

Mukherjee knows exactly how tricky these details can be, and how they can trip up even the most seasoned politician, says T V R Shenoy.

Can an ISI man become the next President of India?

That is 'ISI' as in 'Indian Statistical Institute', the venerable organisation founded by P C Mahalanobis in 1931, not the Pakistani spy outfit.

Unkind souls claim Mahalanobis and his followers did far greater harm to India than the Pakistanis ever could, but that is a story for another day. Today, the focus is on the former chairman of the Indian Statistical Institute Council -- or rather on the precise date when he started adding 'former' before 'chairman'.

The reference, of course, is to Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA nominee for the Presidency of India. Briefly, it was incumbent upon him to resign from any office of profit before he signed the papers making him a candidate.

Sections of the Opposition say Pranab Mukherjee, who was the chairman of the Indian Statistical Institute Council, did not quit that office before filing the papers for his Presidential run, and that he should thus be automatically disqualified.

The Mukherjee camp has released a facsimile of the resignation letter sent to the president of the Indian Statistical Institute, Professor M G K Menon. Dated June 20, 2012, it is a two-sentence, typed note signed by Pranab Mukherjee, upon which there is a handwritten notation by Professor Menon -- the single word 'Accepted', below which is written '20/06/2012'.

Pranab Mukherjee's signature on this letter does not appear to match his signatures elsewhere. A section of the Opposition claims the signature was forged.

Signatures vary wildly. How many of us have had to face a reproachful bank manager after being called in to attest a signature that does not match the one on the bank's records? Would the teller in the bank where Pranab Mukherjee maintains an account accept the signature on the letter to Professor M G K Menon as genuine? If not, the anti-Mukherjee camp has a case.

The Returning Officer refused to reject Pranab Mukherjee's candidacy. The ball then fell into the Election Commission's court, which, on July 10, said, 'Article 71(1) of the Constitution makes an unambiguous stipulation that all doubts and disputes arising out of or in connection with an election to the Office of the President shall be inquired into and decided by the Hon'ble Supreme Court'.

It is, almost certainly, only a matter of time before the issue ends up in the apex court. What is more, the irrepressible Dr Subramanian Swamy has raised the ante, claiming that Pranab Mukherjee holds two other offices of profit, that of vice-president of the Birbhum Institute of Engineering & Technology and that of chairman of the Rabindra Bharati Society.

Is this making a mountain out of a molehill? Is the chairmanship of the Indian Statistical Institute Council or that of the Rabindra Bharati Society truly an 'office of profit'? That apparently is the law, but we are well beyond debating exactly what constitutes an office of profit; the issue is now one of forgery -- and that is a crime any way you look at it.

Pranab Mukherjee -- who has been in politics longer than most Indians have been alive -- knows exactly how tricky these seemingly minor details can be, and how they can trip up even the most seasoned politician.

On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha delivered what came to be known as 'the' Allahabad high court judgment, holding Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of electoral malpractices. Part of the reasoning behind the judgment was that Indira Gandhi had used the services of Yashpal Kapoor, who started acting as her election manager while he was still technically an Officer on Special Duty in the prime minister's secretariat.

The issue was the date when Yashpal Kapoor took up Indira Gandhi's election work in Rae Bareli constituency. The Gazette of India had published a notification on February 6, 1971 -- but dated January 25 of that year -- announcing the President's acceptance of Yashpal Kapoor's resignation as of January 14.

The Fourth Lok Sabha had been dissolved on December 27, 1970. Justice Sinha thought the evidence showed that Yashpal Kapoor had worked for Indira Gandhi at least as early as January 7, 1971, meaning while he was still a gazetted officer. It was a technicality, but it was enough to bring down Indira Gandhi. Her response was the Emergency -- and we are still living with the consequences of that wretched decision.

Pranab Mukherjee knows all this. (He was one of Indira Gandhi's ministers at the time.) He will also remember that the case filed by Raj Narain, Mrs Gandhi's losing opponent in Rae Bareli, took four years to grind its way through the system. Who knows how long the case against Pranab Mukherjee might continue should P A Sangma, Dr Subramanian Swamy, or another interested party pursue it?

Please bear in mind that, unlike Yashpal Kapoor's case, this is no longer just about the date of a resignation, it is also about an alleged forgery. That means the matter could evolve into something as messy as it is prolonged.

The legal battle may be held in abeyance, but the political battle is never-ending. The CPI-M's decision to support Pranab Mukherjee -- rather than oppose him, or just to abstain -- has not gone down well with the party cadres.

Prasenjit Bose was convenor of the CPI-M's research cell and one of the (very few) youthful faces in the party; he quit after accusing the leadership of committing a 'grave error' in backing Pranab Mukherjee. The CPI-M Politburo rejected his resignation -- then, farcically, expelled him from a party that he had already left. (Did it also backdate his expulsion?)

The dissatisfaction is likely to intensify if the CPI-M leadership backs the Congress in giving Hamid Ansari a second term as vice-president. For the record, Ansari was actually proposed by the CPI-M itself back in 2007.

The Congress refused to give A P J Abdul Kalam a second term as President, saying that this had never been done for anyone bar President Rajendra Prasad. Using the same logic, no vice-president has ever been given two terms after Dr S Radhakrishnan.

Why should the Congress break its own rule? And why should the CPI-M back it? Is it because the Congress liked Hamid Ansari's role during the debate on the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha in December 2011?

As for the CPI-M, it might be a case of Indian politics being trumped by the Indian Penal Code; does the party think it needs friends in Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram, given the investigation into political killings in Kerala?

Pranab Mukherjee seems set to be elected by a massive margin. But so was Indira Gandhi in the 1971 general election, and we all know what happened after that.

You can read more columns by Mr Shenoy here.

T V R Shenoy