18 May 2024 09:27 AM



Where is the "E" Word in President Pranab Mukherjee's Memoirs?

NEW DELHI: I believe that a head of state should not publish his memoirs while in office. Political parties are reluctant to criticise him because he is the constitutional head, as much theirs as that of those who elected him. Pranab Mukherjee has violated the demand of office by publishing his memoirs when he is still the President of India.

Before reading his autobiography, I imagined that President Mukherjee would explain how he was wrong in becoming Sanjay Gandhi’s Man Friday. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, literally ran the government. Shockingly, Mukherjee has praised him. “Sanjay was clear in his thinking and forthright in expression,” wrote Mukherjee.

The President should know that Sanjay destroyed the institutions and imposed his personal rule in a democratic polity. Although he had not won even a municipal election, Sanjay administered the country, a job entrusted to Indira Gandhi when the nation returned her to power.

Mukherjee was the Commerce Minister in her cabinet. Still he was at the beck and call of Sanjay Gandhi. Mukherjee should have explained in his memoirs why he was at the end of Sanjay’s telephonic call. Was it the lure of office or did he fear detention without trial?

I, for one, went straight to the index to locate the chapter on the emergency. To my horror, I found that the word beginning with ‘E’ was missing. I thought that the Emergency must have been discussed under some other head. But I was disappointed to find that Mukherjee preferred to skip the traumatic experience the nation underwent for almost 22 months.

The Turbulent Years, as he captioned his biography, has mentioned even small events but not the emergency. Today, the people are quiet or reluctant to say. But posterity will not be burdened by his office. He can still explain and bring out the third volume to do so. By keeping quiet, his is only hurting himself.

Even on the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Mukherjee spares the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, by saying that he was at fault. Narasimha Rao connived at the demolition. He sat at the puja (prayer) at home when the demolition started and opened his eyes only when the masjid was demolished to the last brick. Madhu Limaye, a socialist leader, told me that Narasimha Rao knew about the “conspiracy” beforehand and did nothing to stop its execution.

Mukherjee may have known what Narasimha Rao told us, senior journalists, that the small temple which had come up overnight at the Babri masjid site “would not be there for long.” The mandir is still there. Had Mukherjee felt so strong about the issue, he would have probably said so. It would have retrieved the image of India. The tolerant country would not have got the tag of intolerance which has not rubbed off even after some 24 years.

Mukherjee was taken aback when he learnt from the daughter-in-law of Kamalapati Tripathi, a Congress leader, that he had been expelled for anti-party activities for six years. Mukherjee even started a party of his own when he was dropped from the government by Rajiv Gandhi.

Subsequently, when he regretted his mistake he was made the president of the West Bengal Congress Committee. Strangely, Rajiv Gandhi blessed Ashok Sen’s tirades against Mukherjee. Sen was also from West Bengal. Mukherjee did not emulate the example of R.K. Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s trusted private secretary of 22 years and had also been summarily dismissed. Dhawan preferred to withdraw from public life. However, Mukherjee stayed in politics.

Since the Congress was still riding the wave of garibi hatao (oust poverty), Union Carbide was nationalized. Mukherjee was at odd with the party because he criticised the economic policy. He wrote: “Union Carbide is a big multinational. Nationalizing it would be compared with the nationalization of Coca Cola and seen as a mistake. Nationalisation will discourage future investments into India. As Finance Minister, I have tried to woo investors, NRIs, etc. This will be a huge setback…”

His narratives remind me of President Giani Zail Singh who, too, fell from the grace of Indira Gandhi. But she was helpless because George Fernandes, a socialist leader, had appealed to the President to try Indira Gandhi for having imposed the emergency. Zail Singh told me that he would have done it but being a Sikh, he would have been singled out for taking revenge for the Operation Blue Star when she sent the Indian forces into the Golden Temple.

Despite the deliberate slight to Giani Zail Singh, he remained loyal to the Congress Party and made the broadcast to defend the government on Operation Blue Star. He told me then that he would have become another Maharaja Ranjit Singh if he had defied the government. The Sikh community, he thought, would have hailed him. But, as he told me, he did not do so because it would have adversely affected his country.

Things had come to such a pass between Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh that the former did not allow the President to undertake officials tour to South Africa. Mukherjee was then so close to Rajiv Gandhi that the Prime Minister took his advice and felt justified when Mukherjee endorsed Rajiv Gandhi’s decision.

One strongly feels about the omission of such developments in President Mukherjee’s book. He knew too much but he has told very little. To that extent the President has neither helped himself nor the Congress party. Posterity may feel that he has concealed more than what he has revealed in his memoirs. After all, he was privy to all government decisions, many of which were controversial and required to be told in perspective.

One of them is the imposition of the emergency. Whatever has been published so far does not justify such a step. Was Indira Gandhi’s unseating by the Allahabad High Court the real reason or the countrywide demonstrations by opposition parties? President Mukherjee has failed to make the nation wiser.

(Photograph: Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee in 1983)