On May 31, 2007 will fall the anniversary of a chargesheet that was filed in a Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in New Delhi against Pranab Mukherjee. This happened on this day in 1978. Now, a chargesheet is not an issue and political activists and leaders are vulnerable to face penal charges as and when the take up issues affecting the people. Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, for instance were charged under the penal code and sentenced to imprisonment. The British administration sent them to trial for sedition under Section 124 A of the IPC. And thousands of freedom fighters faced worse charges.
Well. Pranab Mukherjee’s case was not the same. He was accused under Section 241 of the Indian Penal Code; the offence related to deliver of coin as genuine, which when first possessed, the deliverer did not know to be counterfeit. The guilt, if established, warranted imprisonment for a maximum period of two years. The chargesheet filed against him on May 31, 1978 was based on the findings of the Justice Shah Commission of Enquiry.
The case did not proceed for too long because the Janata Government that intended the prosecution fell in July 1979 and Indira Gandhi’s Congress, of which Pranab Mukherjee was a loyal soldier returned to power in January 1980. And the charges were dropped soon after as it happened with all the cases that were filed against the players during the Emergency era. In other words, Pranab was saved from facing trial because the Government changed and Sanjay Gandhi, whose cause he had served, would return as the most powerful man in the dispensation.
However, it will be worth the effort to recall Pranab Mukherjee’s short political biography at this stage. The provocation for this is not because we are closer to the anniversary of the day when the chargesheet was filed but because Pranab Mukherjee seems to have emerged the front-runner in the race to replace Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam as President. And he seems to be there now because the CPI(M) is happy to have him there. And it is impossible to recall Pranab’s rise in the political stage without telling the story of the Maruthi car.
On November 13, 1968, the then Minister of State for Industrial Development, L. N. Mishra, informed the Lok Sabha that a 22-year-old-lad had applied for a license to set up a car manufacturing plant; the car, he said, would cost only Rs. 6,000, would run 56 miles for every litre of petrol at a maximum speed of 53 miles per hour. This idea of a ``people’s car’’ was indeed on the Government’s agenda for sometimes then until it was decided that such a venture should go to the private sector. The large Ambassodor manufactured by the Birlas and the Fiat with its Premier Padmini version were the brands that were available then and both were in the private sector. At least a dozen applications were received for grant of license to set up a plant; among them were such automobile giants like Renault, Citreon, Toyota, Mazda and Morris.
All the giants, however, could not offer as much low a price that the 22-year-old-lad had promised. And the most important factor was that this young man also happened to be Sanjay Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s son.
The Haryana Chief Minister, Bansi Lal, used his powers to acquire 300 acres of agricultural land in Gurgaon (adjacent to Delhi), evicting a large number of small and medium scale farmers and this land was sold to the Maruti car factory at prices lower than the existing market value.
Sanjay’s project, however, needed financial support too. The nationalized banks and several rich men were pressured into subscribing to the paid up capital. This continued for a few years and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India instructed the banks against this sometime in 1975. And after the Emergency, proclaimed on June 25, 1975, the regime decided to change the Governor. Finance Minister, C.Subramaniam, had reservations against this and more so against K.R.Puri, chosen by the regime for the job. Subramaniam said all this on oath before the Shah Commission of Enquiry on October 1, 1977.
The Indira-Sanjay regime stripped Subramaniam of his powers considerably. The departments of Banking, Income Tax, Customs, Industrial Development Bank and Credit Policy, all of them crucial in the running of the Financial Affairs of the nation were removed from his superintendence and handed over to a young man from West Bengal. And that was Pranab Mukherjee. He became Minister of State for Revenue and Banking on December 21, 1975. He was a faithful waiter at Sanjay’s court!
The Central Bank of India and the Punjab National Bank had granted unsecured loans to the tune of Rs. 7.5 Millions to Sanjay’s Maruthi Car project. When all of this happened, the enterprise in Gurgaon that was granted a license in November 1970 to manufacture and roll out 50,000 cars a year had not even managed to test drive its first unit! For instance, Sanjay had displayed his car in the Asia Trade Fair at Delhi in 1972. The car, however, was unfit for road trials and when it was tried, it revealed problems of all kinds. The steering wheel would not hold, the suspension was faulty and the engine heated up within minutes of running.
Uma Vasudev, a journalist who was also working on a Biography of Indira then happened to have the fortune of accompanying Sanjay on a test drive of his car on May 5, 1973. According to her, the car over-heated and leaked oil and its doors did not close properly. The point is that Sanjay’s car project was a disaster and raised scandals one after the other. And Pranab Mukherjee’s rise in the political establishment was possible because he was willing to abuse his position as Minister in the Union Cabinet to force nationalized banks lend money in this financially disastrous project.
Imagine such a man as President of the Republic! And as for the CPI(M), what a fall from the days of Jyotirmoy Basu, the stormy petrel MP who exposed all the dirty things about the Maruti story; Basu was among the few MPs who were held in solitary confinement during the 19 months of the Emergency!