The Coalition Years
Price: Rs 595
Pranab Mukherjee’s third chronicle, The Coalition Years has recorded and revealed political events and developments between 1996 and 2012. It is a frank narrative, which is subjective in some parts. He has not held back his disappointment at not having been called upon to head a government in spite of his exceptional experience in party affairs and administration. The fact that he held divergent views on economics than those held by Dr Manmohan Singh, has not been brushed under the carpet. Nor has he stopped short of admitting that he had differed with Sonia Gandhi on the approach to politics. While doing so he has magnanimously acknowledged Dr Singh’s stature as an internationally acclaimed economist and highlighted the “sterling qualities of leadership” which Sonia Gandhi displayed after taking over as Congress president in 1998.
Pranab Mukherjee had been the designated Number Two in Indira Gandhi’s regime. On 31 October 1984, he was not asked to hold fort after the Prime Minister’s assassination, as had been the case with Gulzari Lal Nanda, who acted as PM for 12 days after Jawaharlal Nehru passed away in May 1964, and again in January 1966 after Lal Bahadur Shastri died in Tashkent. President Zail Singh chose to swear in Rajiv Gandhi immediately. (The resolution of the Congress Parliamentary Board selecting Rajiv Gandhi was passed and conveyed to Rashtrapati Bhavan after Zail Singh had spelt out his mind—he had invited Rajiv Gandhi for swearing him in when they met at the AIIMS, while he had gone to the hospital where Indira Gandhi’s remains were kept initially). Mukherjee left the Congress in the initial days of the Rajiv Gandhi era. Having failed to gather steam with his breakaway Rashtriya Congress, he returned to Congress fold and again re-emerged as a strategist in the last days of Rajiv Gandhi.
When P.V. Narasimha Rao was chosen to head the Congress-led government in 1991, Pranab Mukherjee played a role in projecting Rao, but when the government was formed, Rao did not consult him and he was not in the Cabinet. The choice of non-political technocrat Dr Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister by Rao was difficult for Mukherjee to swallow. He was not in Parliament and thus was appointed Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission. Dr Singh gave him all the respect: breaking tradition, the Finance Minister went to Yojana Bhavan for pre-Budget meetings. Rao inducted Mukherjee as Commerce Minister later, when he was elected to Rajya Sabha in 1993. Perhaps the Babri debacle could have been handled better had Mukherjee been in the Cabinet in December 1992.
The choice of Dr Singh as PM in 2004 was the next setback and Mukherjee has not held back his disappointment in his book. Dr Singh used the book launch function to praise Mukherjee and suggest that perhaps he should have been the PM instead. Though not the PM, Mukherjee headed as many as 97 Groups of Ministers during his tenure as minister in UPA. When Dr Singh underwent heart surgery in January 2009, Mukherjee was asked to preside over Cabinet meetings, though he was not asked to officiate. The Republic Day of 2009 saw Mukherjee hosting Kazhaksthan President Nursultan Nazarbayev on behalf of the PM. Whenever Dr Singh was not in New Delhi, Mukherjee chaired the Cabinet. It was, therefore, not out of place for him to think in 2012 that Sonia Gandhi may like to send Dr Singh to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and make Mukherjee the PM. This was not to be. In July 2012, after 46 years of remarkable political and administrative career, Mukherjee became the Head of State—his dream of being Head of Government unfulfilled. Yet another wish that was not fulfilled was the desire to be Union Home Minister. Mukherjee has been Finance, Defence and External Affairs Ministers, inter alia; he had suggested himself as Home Minister in 2004, but Sonia Gandhi preferred otherwise. Those who have observed 10 Janpath closely over the years, say that the Narasimha Rao years had made Sonia Gandhi somewhat uncomfortable and wary. Thus, in 2004, she did not want to risk another political stalwart as PM. Thence Dr Singh emerged. Even Arjun Singh, who had led the Congress (Tiwari) rabble rousers, felt cheated by Dr Singh’s elevation in 2004. The decade that followed underscored why Dr Singh was preferred by Sonia Gandhi.
The book provides insights on the post-Rajiv Congress; the rise and ouster of Sitaram Kesari as party chief; on Sharad Pawar’s failed venture to be PM; the way India gently but deftly handled Pakistan after the 26/11 Mumbai blasts; and minutely details the decision making process of the UPA days. Mukherjee set up the defence acquisition mechanism; introduced retrospective tax, which created some controversy. While lamenting that GST could not be introduced by him as Finance Minister, he says the arrest of Amit Shah in July 2010 made the BJP renege and oppose the reform, which later was introduced amid midnight fanfare by the Narendra Modi regime in the swansong days of the Mukherjee presidency.
While describing Sitaram Kesri’s election and ouster as Congress president, Mukherjee traces the party’s history and says, “Certain offices should not be sought; rather they should be offered. I consider Congress presidency to be one such office.” Coming at a time when Rahul Gandhi is being proposed for elevation in the party, this is a significant comment. The release of the book was attended by CPI(M), SP and DMK top brass. CPI, which did not back Mukherjee as Presidential candidate, was also on the dais. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul sat in the audience in the Teen Murti Nehru Memorial auditorium, while Dr Singh utilised the occasion for his historic remark which grabbed headlines. BJP and NDA partners were absent. So was Trinamool Congress. Mukherjee has devoted considerable space to the ups and downs in his relationship with Mamata Banerjee and even highlighted her tantrums in the Cabinet. It is said that but for the West Bengal Pradesh Congress leadership taking a skewed view when Mamata lost the PCC presidential poll to Somen Mitra, Trinamool would not have been formed during the Kolkata session of AICC in 1997. Mukherjee has not chosen to elaborate on the Machiavellian moves in his home state which resulted in sending Congress to the sidelines, while the Left parties declined and wilted in West Bengal.
The book ends with the ascendancy of Mukherjee as the 13th Rashtrapati. We can look forward to another chronicle listing his years as the Head of State. Hopefully, it will record all dramatis personae and not selectively omit names. In the Coalition Years, there is no mention of Makhan Lal Fotedar, who had played a positive role in getting Mukherjee back after his Rashtriya Congress misadventure, and also highlighted to Sonia Gandhi the reason why Mukherjee had been a trusted colleague of Indira Gandhi. When Sonia Gandhi took over in 1998, Mukherjee had no particular rapport with her. The effort of people like Fotedar combined with his yeoman talent pitch-forked Mukherjee back to centre stage. (Dr Singh attended the funeral and subsequent prayer meeting when Fotedar passed away last month; Rahul spent two hours at the crematorium.)
The launch of Coalition Years has been professionally orchestrated; an apparently elaborate media plan was in place—TV and print interviews have followed. Embellished campaign to build the image of the author has been set in motion. Mukherjee has pooh-poohed talk of him getting back to active politics. He has cited the precedent of his predecessors who did not play an active political role post retirement. Previous Presidents did not write detailed chronicles and give interviews. The post launch media blitzkrieg suggests that perhaps the last volume of Mukherjee chronicles, of his post Rashtrapati Bhavan days, is yet to unfold.