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Pranab: The master manager
Aditi Phadnis
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March 29, 2005

Defence Minister Pranab MukherjeeIt happened the night the Oscars were announced. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee could see they might have a crisis on their hands.

After the political mess in Jharkhand and Goa where the United Progressive Alliance government's fair name and commitment to democracy had been dragged through the mud, it was now faced with a potentially even more embarrassing spectacle of their own allies -- the 60-odd member Left parties -- turning against the government on the floor of Parliament.

The issue was the Patents (Amendment) Bill. And the Left had made it clear that unless their amendments were taken on board, they would vote against the Bill.

This would amount to a cut motion against the government, which, crammed as it was with honourable men, might feel impelled to offer its resignation.

After nearly 20 years of agitating against the stand of both the Congress and the BJP on patents, the Left had a position on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) and patents.

You could argue in favour or against, but it was right there, on the table. What was a first in 20 years was that now the Left was a supporting partner of a government with whom it differed radically on TRIPs and patents.

This was the problem that Mukherjee posed before the other two people in the room that evening: you could, he said, have a perfect Patents (Amendment) Bill, one that was completely TRIPs-compliant, a model for industrialised nations and one that would make multinationals lick their chops at the prospect of investing in India.

Or, he said, you could keep the government. The choice, he said was up to the three people in the room. You had to take into account the 60-odd people who were supporting the government. They could not be treated as furniture.

Soberly, both Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh wrote a blank cheque. Mukherjee could do what he wanted. Just get the Bill passed, he was told.

Actually, few know that Mukherjee had put a plan in place nearly four months ago. The BJP and the Left both have been railing against the government for its tendency to bring in ordinances at the drop of a hat.

But, in fact, the Patents Ordinance was no sudden fiat. Extended pre-ordinance discussions with the Left in a bid to know their position better brought the ordinance.

It was years of parliamentary work that has taught Mukherjee the wisdom of thinking and planning ahead. He knew that if the Bill to amend the patents law was brought in the Lok Sabha like any other Bill and the opposition together demanded that it be referred to a standing committee, the Speaker would find it impossible to ignore the demand.

And if the Bill went to a standing committee, Mukherjee knew it would be lost in the maze of legislative nicety. On the other hand, if it was an ordinance, the Left would get a chance to attack and criticise the government to its heart's content and then quietly pass the Bill because it could say, it was given no choice.

The Left, therefore, was not unaware that an ordinance was being brought. But it was after this that the negotiations began. Meetings between Mukherjee and the Left were held over 56 manhours in which every clause, every section and subsection was gone over. It was like an obstacle course.

Mukherjee haggled. Sitaram Yechury haggled more. Pre-grant opposition was discussed threadbare -- and in more than one way.

It didn't help that the commerce minister dismissed the Left's objections as nothing more than grammatical differences and continued to believe until four days before the Bill was to come up in the Lok Sabha that the Left was just being obstructive.

He also consistently fought for "my people" in the commerce ministry, which was fine from his point of view but threatened to turn the whole patents discourse into some sort of intellectual guerrilla warfare.

It was Mukherjee who worked quietly, calling in every IOU with the Left, every favour he could recall, to clinch it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telephoned former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu who is extremely fond of Mukherjee.

"If Pranab is doing it, I have told my party to help him," Basu told the PM. Finally, he told the Left what his laxman rekha was: product patent and no less. But everything else could be flexible.

To his government, he said: "An imperfect legislation is better than no legislation." This was the signal to give to the Left, not take from it. At one stage, the commerce minister threw up his hands and said: "What's the use, there is nothing left."

This was when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that on the issue of micro-organisms and chemical "entity" the Left's position was not unreasonable, thus totally isolating Kamal Nath.

Mukherjee now had to explain not just to the other side, but also to his own side, that he was on their side. Confused? But that's what successful negotiation is all about: keeping everyone confused. He batted on Nath's side on this issue to keep the balance.

The leaders reached an agreement, even on the Left-sponsored amendments. But this was not communicated to the floor leaders. While Left leaders told Mukherjee the Bill was now ok, the floor leaders screamed and shouted and would not let it be introduced.

It was Murphy's law playing out in the Lok Sabha. Mukherjee felt he was in some kind of surreal nightmare.

On the night of March 23, after a lot of completely needless drama enacted on the floor of the Rajya Sabha by the commerce minister, the Bill got the assent of Parliament.

The man whose effigies were burnt by the CPI(M) when the Dunkel debate was on, who was advised by BJP leader Murali Manohar Joshi to change his name and call himself Dunkel Mukherjee, got the Bill through.

The amended Patents Bill has virtually become an Act now (it needs the President's nod) and the indubitable hero is Mukherjee.

This is not the only crisis Mukherjee has helped in resolving. When Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee decided to ask the president whether the Supreme Court was right or wrong in directing the proceedings of the Jharkhand Assembly, Mukherjee prevailed on an old friend to see reason and not precipitate the matter.

Chatterjee didn't like it but did what Mukherjee suggested. As Mukherjee pointed out: the Supreme Court can fight with the Speaker and the Speaker can fight with the Supreme Court.

But it is to the government that both will come for resolution. So why head towards a fight at all?

Want to learn management? Get Mukherjee to lecture. There is no better teacher.

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