In the third installment of his political autobiography, Pranab Mukherjee recounts the inauguration and machinations of an era of coalition politics, which began in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s demise, with the Congress party’s defeat in the 1996 General Elections
There’s a very nice photograph of Pranab Mukherjee on the cover of his book. It is what you’d call a “candid photograph”, a photograph that gives you a peep into someone’s “real” self, as you imagine it to be. It shows an affable, good-natured face with eyes that seem to fathom more than the indulgent smile lets on. His face reveals wisdom and the reflective assurance of a man who has weathered many seasons. What the photograph doesn’t reveal is what Sonia Gandhi once credited Pranab Mukherjee with: As having “a memory of two elephants’’.
With his third book in a series of political memoirs The Coalition Years: 1996 to 2012 — out, we can amend that and credit him with a memory of three elephants, each elephantine memory coming up with a memoir for three different phases of the Congress: The “dramatic” (70s), the “turbulent” (1980-1996), and the “coalition” years (1996-2012). Who better than the veteran Congressman, who has been described variously as one of the “four Shankaracharyas” during the 70s, as a “gifted politician”, a “survivor”, and the “ultimate informed insider”, to recount the inauguration and machinations of an era of coalition politics?
The coalition years began in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s demise, with the Congress’ defeat in the 1996 General Elections. This was a period which Mukherjee rightly describes as “a marker of post-Congress polity”, where for the first time in Indian politics, a post-electoral coalition of minor State-based parties constituted the United Front Government at the Centre.
Mukherjee recounts the shift of this centre as a series of fragmented trysts with power with candour and a pretty frank admission of the Congress’ motivations and role in destabilising the United Front Governments. So Deve Gowda’s Government was brought down because after coming to power, he was being unfaithful to his political kingmakers by investigating charges of corruption. And support was withdrawn from IK Gujral’s Government because he refused to take action against the DMK coalition ministers, even after the Justice LC Jain Commission gestured towards the party’s involvement in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
But Mukherjee’s candour may also have had something to do with his own disdain and disapproval of the reigning centres of power, both within the Congress and outside of it in the United Front Government.
The former President expresses “surprise” and thinly veiled disapproval at Pv Narasimha Rao’s replacement, Sitaram Kesri, as the then Congress president. He takes a swipe at Kesri’s earlier tenure as a treasurer, by recounting a joke about his accounting procedures — “na khata, na bahi, jo Kesriji kahein, wahi sahi”. He wants the reader to know that Kesri is not a man after his heart, yet wants to prove his credentials as a loyal party worker, as someone who liked to build consensus, and who supported and handled behind-the-scene machinations for Kesri when the Congress was pulling the plug on Gowda’s and Gujral’s Governments.
He is also at pains to demonstrate that in all these CWC meetings, his only status was that of a “special invitee”, not a full member from 1991 to 1997, i.e. the period of Narasimha Rao and later Kesri dominance. This quality of selflessness and gallantry, Mukherjee wants his readers to note.
If there’s one thing you’d want to know from a Pranab Mukherjee memoir, it is whether he expressed disappointment and frustration at his never making the cut either as a Congress president or as its Prime Ministerial candidate. One only gets a fleeting peep into his disappointment when Kesri became the president of the Congress in 1996. He writes, “Although I gave my support, I had expected some other outcome. Other than me, Kesri was the most senior member of the CWC at that time.”
But the second time around, after Sonia Gandhi declined to accept the position of the Prime Minister, Mukherjee is more frank about his thwarted ambition. He writes: “The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. This expectation was possibly based on the fact that I had extensive experience in Government, while (Manmohan) Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist Finance Minister.”
But again, Mukherjee wants you to know that his personal ambitions and expectations, pains and distresses never came in the way of his larger loyalty to the party and his commitment to democracy. When it was time to move on from Kesri to Sonia, Mukherjee forthrightly admits to finding a “technical route” for Kesri’s removal from the post of party president (there was no provision for removal of party president in the Congress constitution). He may have been instrumental in finding a via media for Sonia becoming the party president, he may have been a genuine advocate of Sonia as the UPA I Prime Minister, he may have wanted the post for himself because he considered himself the most deserving and experienced, but the Congress and circumstances always seemed to have other plans for him. He wants you to know that he had reasons to feel short-changed but that he rose above his personal ambitions and plans.
Mukherjee describes his relationship with Sonia as one of “warmth and mutual respect”. You get scattered references through the book (as also the back cover) about the space for banter and camaraderie that existed in their relationship. Of Sonia, he always speaks warmly and appreciatively. He is full of praise for her ability to steer the Congress-led-coalition of UPA I and II from 2004-14, and of her ability to forge an alliance with various parties, including smaller entities like the JMM, RJD, CPI(M) and so on.
He is full of empathy when Sonia tendered her emotional resignation as party president after the hue and cry over her Italian origin. He wants you to know that she may not have made him the PM, but he remained in loyal service to the party. He also talks quite highly of Manmohan Singh as the “father of reforms” (despite citing differences on economic issues), as a “man of courage and conviction” who was certainly not “an accidental Prime Minister”, and who handled the Indo-US nuclear deal with exemplary firmness.
By this time you feel for Mukherjee. Here was a man who had been sidelined ignominiously by Rajiv Gandhi (dropped from the CWC and later expelled from the Congress), who had been short- changed by Narasimha Rao (not made the FM in 1991 — both story details in the second memoir titled, The Turbulent Years), and again not made the PM in 2005. He wasn’t made the PM, and was surprisingly assigned a defence portfolio, the rationale for which escaped him. But Mukherjee, who had a job to do, made his peace with the defence charge.
He writes that his apprehensions did not last long. “Within weeks in the new assignment, I started enjoying the pressures of this new complicated ministry.” The chapter titled, ‘In Defence’, ends with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. But just as he was beginning to settle down and author the Indo-US defence partnerships and alliances, and investigate the NDA scams, he was again shifted out. This time to the External Affairs Ministry, after the resignation of Natwar Singh. Mukherjee expresses his disappointment candidly when he says that he was leaving his defence plans “only partially executed”.
It was in 2009 when there was a Cabinet reshuffle following the Mumbai terror attacks — when Manmohan Singh, who held the additional charge of finance, had to undergo a heart bypass surgery — that Mukherjee finally got the portfolio of his choice — finance, which he continued to hold in UPA II, 2009 onwards. The book also covers his work as the Finance Minister and highlights the opportunity he had to set in motion his plans, some of which he announces animatedly to include the MNREGA, FSLRC, Aadhar, GST, oil pricing, Gov- ernment debt management and so on. Again, if there’s one thing you’d have ex- pected some light on in the chapter titled, ‘Returning to Finance’, it was the coal al- location scam of UPA I, but Mukherjee maintains a diplomatic silence.
And finally, in the last chapter of his book, and thus far the last chapter of his political career, Mukherjee becomes the country’s President, with Sonia finally overcoming her initial reluctance of letting go of “an organisational man”. Amidst Mamata Banerjee’s fractious disagreement with Mukherjee, amidst parleys, negotiations, disagreements, and everything that has come to embody the tribulations of coalition politics, he became the 13th President of India in 2012, finally reaching a destination he may have thought was commensurate with his stature and importance. But this was also a phase that emerges as the weakest link of his political career.
Mukherjee, in his introductory chapter, warns us about the distortions that Ordinances bring about in our parliamentary functioning. He writes, “Within three years of the current Lok Sabha, 28 Ordinances have been promulgated.” Although a President does not have the Constitutional mandate to overrule Cabinet decisions, there has been a history of judicious use of the little elbow room Presidents have to at least dent the air of consensus around decisions that are undemocratic in spirit. Mukherjee chose not to occupy this space. And the only reason he cites is that he didn’t want “these differences to be brought into media glare”. Two instances of President’s rule in 2016, in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, are technically outside the ‘coalition years’, but reveal the exact same propensity and predilection. In Uttarakhand, Mukherjee had the power to delay his Presidential assent, which would have given a Congress CM, Harish Rawat, one day he needed to prove his majority in the Assembly floor test. He chose not to.
It is understandable when political considerations and coalition math trump grandstanding on principles. That’s politics for you. But where politics and principles both align, what could have been Mukherjee’s motivations? A plausible theory could be that by now he had begun to think of himself as some kind of a repository or even an embodiment of parliamentary morality. With him rested the responsibility of keeping the culture of parliamentary proceedings intact as all around him were ruins of denigrated conduct.
It comes through in a quintessentially Pranabda paragraph where he’s admonishing raucous ministers of the Cabinet (sometime in 2012): “I am asking myself after attending the previous Cabinet meetings, what are we doing here? Do not mind if I say that I have the longest experience as a Minister in the Union Cabinet than any of you around this table. I have never seen such Cabinet meetings. The Cabinet is not a talking shop. It is the highest decision-making body in the Union, which presides over the fate of such a vast multitude of people living in the Indian sub-continent.” If there’s a sentiment of his that runs through the book, it is his reverence and belief in the rituals of parliamentary democracy. It gave him the stoicism to deal with his own thwarted ambitions but also dragged him back from fulfilling a higher purpose.
Political memoirs are tricky tales. Their ‘show and tell’ is constrained not just because they themselves are part of the history they seek to narrate, but also by the position the authors occupy while writing these stories. Rahul Gandhi is curiously missing from all accounts, all pages, even the index; an example perhaps of the ‘locational limitation’ of the memoir and its author. The exercise, the expectation, and the location within the power matrix, both then and now, will always make these memoir-stories fall short of accuracy and/or tell-all-salacious-gossip expectations. But we could argue that the main purpose of a memoir is not to meet expectations, not even to dazzle or sensationalize, but to present a chronicle of a time that is too new to be history and too old to be news.
Rajshree Chandra – The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi