The skilled and prominent part played by Pranab Mukherjee in the management of state affairs is brought to relief in his latest memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996. As in his 2014 book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, his ripe years and experience are reflected in this volume. The silent role played by him, as minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, as also later, in the evolution of India from “Inspector Raj” to the present day market economy is chronicled in this book. His commitment to the “idea of India” as enunciated by the Constituent Assembly is underscored. Federalism, with emphasis on the supremacy of the Centre and the yeoman role of the Planning Process in the management of the economy are highlighted. While choosing to omit some references that may have not been politically correct, he is candid on many issues.
The developments of 31 October 1984: Indira Gandhi’s assassination and subsequent assumption of office by Rajiv Gandhi have been referred to in great detail in the book. Mukherjee was with Rajiv Gandhi in rural Bengal when the news broke; he travelled back with the heir of his leader and also played a prominent role in ensuring a smooth succession. He was the senior-most minister in both the outgoing and the incoming Cabinets. However, when Rajiv Gandhi formed a Cabinet, post his election victory, Mukherjee was dropped. He continued to play a prominent role as Congress Working Committee (CWC) member, though he became an ordinary MP. (“My absence from the Cabinet resulted in change in attitude towards me, even within the party”, he notes.)
At the 1985 Congress centenary session in Mumbai, Rajiv initially asked him to move the Centenary Resolution. Mukherjee, citing his lack of fluency in Hindi, suggested that the resolution be moved by P.V. Narasimha Rao (who was fluent not only in Hindi but spoke 16 languages) and Mukherjee be asked to second it. While he was seconding the historic resolution, someone midway announced the lunch recess, and the man whom Indira Gandhi trusted, was cut short. (Though he does not mention, Mukherjee was the first treasurer of Congress-I in 1978; he presided over meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs in Indira Gandhi’s absence.)
In the months that followed, Mukherjee was expelled from Congress; he formed his own outfit (which he describes as a “fiasco”). Later, at the intervention of Sheila Dikshit (who was minister in the Prime Minister’s Office) and Santosh Mohan Dev, Rajiv relented—thus Mukherjee was back in the party. He was assigned a room in Jawahar Bhavan and asked to edit Zero Hour; a publication brought out by the party post its 1989 defeat. He headed the campaign committee in the 1991 elections and was the principal spokesman.
He justifies the emergence of P.V. Narasimha Rao as Congress president following Rajiv’s assassination, as Rao, though contemplating retirement, headed the Central Election Committee (no general secretary was senior enough to take this mantle and Sonia Gandhi had refused the post: Mukherjee notes that Balram Jakhar was keen to take over). He registers his disappointment at not being included in Rao’s Cabinet in 1991, and instead being asked to head the Planning Commission. Rao apparently told him that he was keen to have him on board, but had some compulsions that were never elaborated. After the Babri demolition, Rao started consulting Mukherjee, and in January 1993, inducted him in the Cabinet.
Mukherjee dwells on the turbulence in Punjab; Operation Blue Star; Kashmir and Bofors. He vividly traces the genesis of the crisis in Assam, citing its roots in 1979. After Operation Blue Star had been ordered, Indira Gandhi said, “Pranab, I know of the consequences.” He writes: “Aware that her own life was at risk, she took the conscious decision in the best interest of the nation.”
Describing the Babri demolition as “an act of absolute perfidy”, he notes that the Foreign Minister of an important Islamic country had pointed out to him that “such damage had not been inflicted on a mosque even in Jerusalem, which has seen religious conflicts since centuries”.
Though not a minister, he was present at a Cabinet meeting after 6 December 1992. When ministers had left, he told Rao, “Was there no one who advised you of the dangers? Did you not understand the global repercussion of any damage to the Babri Masjid?”
Mukherjee was with Rajiv Gandhi in rural Bengal when the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination broke; he travelled back with the heir of his leader and also played a prominent role in ensuring a smooth succession.
Mukherjee recalls his warm relationship with Rao, who used to partake spicy Bengali vegetarian food, cooked by the late Mrs Gita Mukherjee and had been a family friend. While applauding Rao’s “deftness” and his scholarship, Mukherjee laments that Rao averted decisions under the muse of consensus. He notes that in 1996, the Congress suffered as the then Prime Minister lacked charisma. (Mukherjee omits any reference to the role played by the breakaway Congress-Tiwari in the 1996 defeat; may be due to the patronage that faction unobtrusively got from 10 Janpath.)
He pays rich tribute to Sanjay Gandhi—in doing so he stands out as the first ever Congress stalwart who has remembered this unsung hero. Describing Sanjay as the “principal architect” of the Congress victory in 1980, he observes that “none of Sanjay’s supporters deserted him in post Emergency period unlike Indira Gandhi’s followers”.
Quoting Inder Malhotra in 1984, he writes, “Indira Gandhi excelled all Prime Ministers to date, even Jawaharlal Nehru.” There are many moving references to his relationship with his leader and his chats with her.
He feels his preoccupation with work as Finance Minister in Indira’s Cabinet which kept him away from playing courtesan when Rajiv was emerging in the party led to his downfall.
He attributes this to Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and Vijay Dhar. He credits Rajiv for lowering the voting age; for panchayat and nagarpalika reforms; for opening a closed door with Beijing; for his steadfastness on nuclear policy while he questions the Shah Bano and Babri Masjid decisions.”However, it is true that no one is perfect. Rajiv has been criticized for his excessive reliance on some close friends and advisors who installed a so-called ‘babalog’government.Some of them turned out to be fortune seekers”, writes Mukherjee.
While all dramatis personae have been referred to normally, he refers to the present Congress chief as “Soniaji”.He has good words for Atal Behari Vajpayee,L.K.Advani and for Chandra Shekhar,”a man of conviction”. He says, “What strikes me most about Chandra Shekhar is that he has always been a rebel at heart”.
Lauding V.P. Singh for his “honesty and integrity”, he questions the practice of a Finance Minister avoiding meeting industrialists. As V.P. Singh’s predecessor in the Finance Ministry, he writes on Bofors, “If V.P. Singh had found something wrong with the proposal, he could have brought it to the notice of the PM immediately and if the PM refused to listen to him, it was his job as FM to ensure that the purchase took place according to rules and regulations. He could not simply say that he was not kept informed. Hardly anything can move in the government without a FM being in the loop.”
Mukherjee’s stature is best summed up by a comment of Vasant Sathe after a Cabinet meeting presided by Rajiv when the Bhopal tragedy of December 1984 was discussed. At Mukherjee’s insistence, the PM overruled the others. Sathe, apparently alluding to Mukherjee’s height said, “Like Indiraji’s government, this one, too, is being run by one-and-a-half men (meaning the PM and Mukherjee).” After he took 95 minutes to present his first Budget in 1982, Indira Gandhi exclaimed, “The shortest FM has delivered the longest Budget speech.” Speaker Balram Jakhar added, “It is a long and short story.” That perhaps sums up the second volume of Mukherjee’s turbulent memoir.
Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a former editor of Sunday and of National Herald.