The second volume of President Pranab Mukherjee’s political memoirs charts events from 1980-1996. In many ways, it is more gripping than the earlier one, which spanned 1969-1980.
It is the penultimate volume of a promised trilogy. It is remarkable for three things – what it reveals, what is left unsaid and at least one giant blunder between Mukherjee’s professed beliefs, expressed in the book and his action as head of the state. Here are the choicest nuggets from Mukherjee’s book.
On Sanjay Gandhi
Pranab has never made any bones about his proximity to Sanjay Gandhi, reviled in media and popular memory as the architect of Emergency’s excesses. Mukherjee recalls Indira Gandhi telling someone, “He (Sanjay) is not a thinker, he is a doer.”
Sanjay had charisma and an instant connect with the youth. He was instrumental in revitalising an ageing and tired organisation, whose reins remained in the hands of an older generation.Excerpt from The Turbulent Years, 1980-96, by Pranab Mukherjee
Assam and Punjab in Turmoil
Both crises started around the same time between 1979 and 1980.
Opposition parties… ascribed the violence (on 14 February 1983, 2,000 Muslims were killed by Lalung tribesmen in the Nellie massacre) to the government’s insistence on holding general elections at the end of one year of President’s rule. But what legal and constitutional powers were available? (...) The only option was to amend the Constitution… by extending President’s rule beyond one year… The fact is such support was extended by non-Communist opposition parties just nine days before elections.Excerpt from The Turbulent Years, 1980-96, by Pranab Mukherjee
On Storming the Golden Temple
“I still recall Mrs Gandhi telling me, ‘Pranab, I know of the consequences.’ She understood the situation well and was clear there was no other option.”
The Fateful Journey
En Route New Delhi, From Calcutta
Date: 31 October 1984
In October Rajiv Gandhi was touring West Bengal with ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury and Pranab – the trip was intended to quell factionalism in the Congress.
On 31 October, they received a radio message saying Indira had been “assaulted” and they should return to Delhi. Riding shotgun in Ghani Khan’s Mercedes from Contai to Calcutta, where an aircraft awaited them, Rajiv tuned in to the BBC.
It is through the news that we got to know that 16 bullets had been pumped into Mrs Gandhi. ‘How potent are the bullets used by VIP security personnel?’ he (Rajiv) asked his PSO. The PSO informed him that they were very powerful. Rajiv then turned to us and, with great emotion, asked, ‘Did she deserve all these bullets?’Excerpt from The Turbulent Years, 1980-96, by Pranab Mukherjee
The flight from Calcutta to Delhi was tense. Apart from Rajiv, Pranab and Ghani Khan, there were several other leaders: Lok Sabha speaker Balram Jakhar, Bengal Governor Uma Shankar Dikshit and daughter-in-law Sheila, Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Shyamlal Yadav and others.
After a while, most of the senior Congressmen started plotting the next course of action. Pranab too joined in, saying that after the death of Nehru and Shastri, an interim government had been formed, headed by the senior-most minister (he was minister of finance at the time).
“This was an extraordinary situation where an incumbent Prime Minister had been assassinated. Apart from political void, a lot of uncertainties, too, had been created.” They decided to ask Rajiv Gandhi to take over as Prime Minister.
“To avoid any confusion or uncertainty we had decided that both Rajiv’s appointment as Prime Minister and Indiraji’s assassination should be announced simultaneously.”
In the pressure-cooker political atmosphere of that day and weeks afterwards, it was rumoured that Pranab had secretly hankered for the position of Prime Minister and had to be persuaded otherwise. “And this created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind. These stories are completely false and spiteful.”
Exile and Rehabilitation
On 31 December 1984, after polls where Congress swept 404 of 514 Lok Sabha seats, Rajiv was elected president of the Congress Parliamentary body and dived into ministry formation. Pranab was gob-smacked to find he had been dropped from the Cabinet. He quotes from an interview that Rajiv gave to Sunday magazine soon afterwards.
Soon Mukherjee found himself out of the Congress Working Committee and other decision-making bodies. After an interview with Pritish Nandy of The Illustrated Weekly, which Pranab says was maliciously editorialised, he was expelled from Congress in 1986.
He formed his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC), which failed to get any traction. After a disastrous no-show in Bengal assembly polls in 1987, RSC practically vapourised. From 1987 to January 1988, he was in political hibernation: “I lost contact with most of my old colleagues and would often sit in the Central Hall of Parliament all alone, puffing my pipe.”
Rehabilitation was slow, beginning with an invitation to campaign for the Congress in Tripura in 1988. After Congress lost to the rag-tag V P Singh-led coalition in 1989, Rajiv and Mukherjee mended their fences. On May 21, 1991, Rajiv was assassinated in Tamil Nadu while campaigning for the general elections.
Pranab claims he was shattered, and adds: “Rajiv has been criticised for his excessive reliance on some close friends and advisors... Some of them turned out to be fortune seekers.” He reserves special venom for Arun Nehru, a distant cousin and one-time confidante of Rajiv.
He is also critical of Rajiv’s handling of the Shah Bano case and says, “The opening of the Ram Janambhoomi temple site on 1 February 1986 was perhaps another error of judgement.”
PV and Pranab’s Bromance
Pranab and PV Narasimha Rao seemed to have shared some fair amount of bromance. Yet, even after Rao was sworn in as PM in 1991, Pranab was not made a minister. He was, instead, made Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a post he was reluctant to accept but which Rao prevailed upon him to do.
This tale ends on a happy note, with Pranab getting a call in January, 1993, to become Commerce Minister. Two years later, he was appointed External Affairs minister, a role he seems to have enjoyed thoroughly, travelling the world with wife Geeta.
And thus, the narrative ends in this volume.
But often what is said, however interesting, pales in significance compared to things left unsaid and actions that confound principles laid down in writing. The fatal flaw in this otherwise interesting memoir lies there.
(Part 1 of 2)
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)