VENKATESH KESARI | 15 OCTOBER, 2017
NEW DELHI: Former President of India Pranab Mukherjee has had an uneasy relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family. The see-saw moved rapidly for him, from forming his own political party to functioning as a troubleshooter, a key floor manager to making room for others, even political juniors like Manmohan Singh, as Congress nominated Prime Ministers.
His book “The Coalition Years 1996-2012” recently released in New Delhi has evoked considerable interest as a result. And while guarded, Mukherjee has written ---how could he not?--of the ‘trust deficit’ he faced in the Congress after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. And how this continued to dog him under the current leadership as well.
Given his experience, as he himself has written, Mukherjee did fancy himself along with many in the Congress party as the preferred candidate for the post of Prime Minister when the party won the 2004 elections.
“There was intense speculation in the party and the media about her (Sonia Gandhi) choice. Within the Congress party, the consensus was that the incumbent must be a political leader with experience in party affairs and administration. Finally, she named Dr Manmohan Singh as her choice and he accepted,” Mukherjee wrote.
But he clarified for the reader that, “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 Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist finance minister”.
It was no secret at the time that Mukherjee himself expected to be the choice but clearly he lost out because of the trust deficit. This was a second for him as earlier PV Narasimha Rao had pipped him to the post of PM in 1991.
Mukherjee has recorded the media “speculation and frenzy” at the time. As he wrote, “some media commentators reported that I would not join the government because I could no work under Manmohan Singh, who had been my junior when I was the finance minister. The fact was that I was reluctant to join the government ,and informed Sonia Gandhi accordingly. She, however, insisted that I should join the government since I would be vital to its functioning ,and also be of support to Dr Singh. As it turned out, Dr Singh would talk to me on all important issues and seemed to depend on me. We shared out a good working relationship.”
Despite not wanting to be in the government, he was left with no choice clearly by the party President. And while not ‘experienced’ enough to become the Prime Minister, his long innings were used by the then Prime Minister who in Mukherjee’s guarded languaged “seemed to rely” on him.
Then, in a bid to retain some of what many perceived as lost dignity, Mukherjee when consulted by Sonia Gandhi about portfolios made his choice clear. He said he would prefer the Home Ministry. Mukherjee made it very clear that he did not want Finance because of his “ideological differences” on economic policies with Singh, and was not keen on Defence as he had no experience in the same.
But here too he did not get the Ministry of his choice and was given the Defence portfolio. Despite his experience in the party, he was not informed of this beforehand but got to know only while taking oath.
As he wrote, “Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh discussed likely ministers from the Congress . In that context ,Sonia called me and asked which of the four portfolios (defence, home, external affairs and finance) I would prefer to take. Her inclination was for me to take up Finance. However, I told her that I would not like to be charged with Finance due to my ideological differences on economic policy with the Prime Minister –designate. I also told her that I would prefer Home over External Affairs—I had worked as the chairman of the Standing Committee on Home Affairs for over six years and was conversant with the ministry—and that I had no experience in Defence. She heard me out,making no commitment, nor indicating a decision other than saying that Defence was a world in itself and the Defence Ministry would offer me maximum autonomy,taking into account my seniority.”
“ It was at the swearing-in that I got to know that I was to be the Minister for Defence”.
And Mukherji never really got to know why he had been given this particular ministry writing, “ I was not able to fathom what exactly was in the mind of Congress president when she chose me to be Defence Minister.”
Despite being kept out of the loop insofar as his own ministry was concerned, Mukherjee did work as a troubleshooter for the party, speaking with Sharad Pawar, and Lalu Prasad Yadav to finalise the ministries and ensure that all hackles were tackled with political ease. Mukherjee was also involved in the selection of the Lok Sabha Speaker and wrote that while various names were discussed, “my choice lay elsewhere,and I said “ Let us persuade Somnath Chatterjee.””
Pranab Mukherjee's name was considered for the office of President of India twice. First in 2007 and later in 2012. In 2007, “I was told that my name was proposed by the Left parties first and then seconded by others.”
“ Sonia Gandhi called me and said your name is being suggested by some political parties as the presidential candidate but it would be difficult for us to spare you as you are a strong pillar of the party in the government and in the Parliament.” He said he would go by her decision, and clearly this was not in his favour.
In 2012, she again spoke to him about the Presidential post,“Pranabji, you are most eminently suited for the office,but you should not forget the crucial role you are playing in the functioning of the government. Could you suggest a substitute ?”
Here too Mukherjee got the impression that Sonia Gandhi would prefer Manmohan Singh as the UPA Presidential nominee. But given the flak the government was getting at the time, entertained the hope that he would then become the Prime Minister for the remaining term in office.
“ The meeting ended ,and I returned with a vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office,she may choose me as the prime minister. I had heard the rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in t he Kaushambi Hills.” Well this did not happen and Manmohan Singh who was said to have been eyeing the Presidential office at this stage of his career did not make it. And Pranab Mukherjee became the President of India.
It is apparent that as Mukherjee has written, “ I was not in Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle in her initial circle years as Congress president. Her close advisors comprised Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, K Karunakaran, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni.”
He felt that he was accepted by her later though, writing, “It was Pachmarhi Conclave of the Congress which brought me close to her.”