This report has appeared in the July 26,2012 Mumbai edition of DNA
New Delhi: Pranab Mukherjee’s maiden presidential speech after he was sworn in by chief justice H.S.Kapadia in the Central Hall of Parliament on Wednesday morning gave glimpses of the thoughtful and incisive politician’s observations drawn from personal experience.
He referred to the 1943 Bengal famine and described hunger as a humiliation and warned that trickle-down theories of economic growth would not suffice. While praising the emergence of United Nations and other institutions which favour peace rather than war, he warned that the age of war is not over, and described the war against terrorism as the fourth world war.
Mukherjee is however not a wordsmith and he does not enjoy the Radhakrishnan-esque felicity with the apt and euphonic turn of phrase. There are parts of the speech which are awkward in formulation and sincere in intent. But there are places where sharp phrasing reflects a deep thought.
There was an expectation that he would quote Rabindranath Tagore as R.Venkataraman did from Tamil poet Subramania Bharati. He did not. Instead he ended his speech with a quote from Swami Vivekananda that yoked Indian nationalism with the spiritual vision.
“I have seen vast, perhaps, unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi.” The phrases “flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village” and “chandeliers of Delhi” are hanging in the air because he does not complete the thought that he had spent his early life in lamp-lit nights and that got transformed into chandeliered halls of his workplace in later life. The experience he conveys is true but it remains unsaid because of bad construction. The next sentence sounds right and poignant: “I was a boy when Bengal was savaged by a famine that killed millions; the misery and sorrow is still not lost on me.” But he could have said this in a more effective manner. It remains perfunctory.
He hits the high, sharp note with this: “There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger.” And this is followed by a indirect and sharp rebuke to one school of economic theorists, including prime minister Manmohan Singh: “Trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor.”
He sums up the 20th century as one of war and how its bitter lessons forged a change of mindset” “The two halves of the 20th Century tell their own story. Europe, and indeed the world, reinvented itself after the end of the Second World War and the collapse of colonisation, leading to the rise of great institutions like the United Nations.” But he argues that the change in mindset has not been sufficient and that the troubles of war are not at an end: “But the visible rewards of peace have also obscured the fact that the age of war is not over. We are in the midst of a fourth world war; the third was the Cold War, but it was very warm in Asia, Africa and Latin America till it ended in the early 1990s. The war against terrorism is the fourth; and it is a world war because it can raise its evil head anywhere in the world.”
Mukherjee points out that India has been in the frontlines of this war “long before many other recognised its vicious depth or poisonous consequences.”
And he ended the speech with the quote from Vivekananda: “As Swami Vivekananda in his soaring metaphor said, India will be raised, not with the power of flesh but with the power of the spirit, not with the flag of destruction, but with the flag of peace and love.”