Reading the fourth volume of late Pranab Mukherjee’s memoir, The Presidential Years: 2012-2017, particularly if you’ve read the first three, the thing that strikes you is his changing mood, tenor and reserve with truth-telling. Remember, I didn’t say lying. Only hesitation with truth-telling.
It could be that this latest, posthumously published volume, was too close to the years he’s talking about. Or, that he took, as was characteristic of the statist in him, an overly self-restraining view of what he could leave for posterity of his time in Rashtrapati Bhavan, as a “non-party person”.
He’s careful to underline that point when he explains why he did not vote in the 2014 elections. It’s been suggested that some of that reserve could also be forced by the fact that his two children are full-time and doughty politicians in the Congress party, or because he was conscious of the usual sibling rivalries. That it did not work is evident from the public sparring that followed between his son and daughter after the publication of even this particularly anodyne volume.
The surprising thing is how careful Pranab is in avoiding going into any complexities. Also, a bit disappointing, because in public life, he was always known to be a man of a few, cautiously chosen and weighed words. He intervened in an issue or a decision when he had a strong view and the conviction that he knew better, even if he wasn’t sure others would agree. He also had a short temper.
Check out his infamous Retrospective Amendments to Income Tax Act. Everybody who mattered in his government, from Sonia Gandhi to Manmohan Singh to senior cabinet colleagues such as P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath and Kapil Sibal, was against it.
But Pranabda had his conviction. We are the sovereign. We are not a tax-free jurisdiction. One who makes a profit has to pay tax in some place. So, to hell with the consequences for investments and the markets, the sovereign will act. We can only rue the harm to the economy and serial humiliations in international arbitration courts.
This volume has, nevertheless, made some headlines. One, for his reference to a period when he was already in Rashtrapati Bhavan, but not in the party. He speaks, only in passing, on Sonia Gandhi having failed to lead the party effectively in its crisis years. If he had stayed on in the Cabinet, he says, he wouldn’t have let Mamata Banerjee leave UPA, or Andhra Pradesh be divided and Telangana created.
He makes you curious, but then refuses to go into any details as to how he would have done it. What would his political approach be to Andhra after Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s sudden death? It is a gentle side-swipe at Sonia. But if he had hoped it was so subtle she would let it pass, you can only conclude that he had lost some of his legendary instinct. And if he thought it would hurt her politically, you’d be tempted to think he had been out of politics too long. Could a Pranab Mukherjee have forgotten the realities of national politics today or the state of his former party? Publishers want their books to make headlines. So this one did make some. But, beyond the headline, where is the copy? There’s none.
He also mentions how Manmohan Singh’s distractions with keeping the coalition together kept him out of Parliament and from interacting with MPs. The other headline is, his saying how Sonia Gandhi offered the prime ministership to Manmohan Singh while Narendra Modi earned it the hard way. Never mind that this is a simple statement of fact that any 18-year-old (if not younger) would know and write. You don’t need any UPSC-level GK or special courage to speak that truism.
Two National Interest columns followed his earlier three volumes. You can read these here, headlined ‘The Wilderness Years’, and ‘Dada Don’t Preach’. The first volume was the most candid. It spoke of his troubles within his party, how he was ejected by Rajiv Gandhi, treated as an “outcast” (his words), how he spent hours alone in Parliament’s Central Hall where no partyman even wanted to be seen with him. And how he was humiliated in public at the famous AICC session in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi made his historic speech on Congress having become a party of power-brokers. As a CWC member, he was midway through proposing a motion to adopt the AICC resolution on agriculture when lunch was announced. He wasn’t even allowed to complete his sentence. He was then dropped from the CWC.
In that first volume, he also came close to raising questions about the way Rajiv was chosen as successor to his mother. He doesn’t quite say that he himself was the most qualified, but it echoes loudly between the lines. He concludes on a note that is tantalising enough: If the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) and Board (CPB) had not even been called, could a mere bureaucrat, P.C. Alexander, and a personal friend of Rajiv’s like Arun Nehru, have decided who would be prime minister?
The next volume was considerably restrained. The reason was again probably because not enough time had yet passed between the party and his presidency. His justification on the retrospective tax, highlighting his ideological differences as an old socialist (I prefer statist) with the ‘pro-free-market’ Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram, was significant. In my book, it was self-serving. That’s why the National Interest based on it was titled ‘Dada Don’t Preach’. He knew better than anybody else that his tenure in the finance ministry contributed to weakening UPA-2 and sending the economy on a downward slope.
The reason we say he seems to have lost his fire in successive volumes is that the latest one, despite a few teasing highlights, hides a lot more than it tells. His justification for the prime minister informing neither him, the President, nor his cabinet of his demonetisation decision, for example. Or why he went along with the government on imposing President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
In a country where public figures rarely leave any archives, writings, letters or books behind, we are grateful for his four volumes. It is a monumental work in contemporary history. But, his aversion to get into the real political issues is a big let-down.
If he knew that Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had already displayed weak political leadership, why did he escape to Rashtrapati Bhavan instead of staying back and fighting for his party and ideology? He hasn’t given us any indication of the tough period when he realised Sonia had decided to give the presidency not to him but to then vice-president Hamid Ansari.
Someone else will now have to write a book on how masterfully he outmanoeuvred her, reaching out to Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, even Shiv Sena and the BJP (through M.J. Akbar, as he hinted in his earlier volume). He wrested the presidency from her, and thereby handed her the biggest defeat of her UPA years. He never makes that one straight-line point: That he was deeply aggrieved that the Gandhi family, after Indira, always denied him his due. The tension became worse over the years, and it is well known that Sonia was furious when Pranab took a high-powered group to Delhi airport to negotiate with Baba Ramdev. He was no admirer of Sonia and even less so of Rahul, who finds only two passing, listing mentions as a member in a delegation on pages 13-14.
We still await the answer to the question, who won that Pranab-versus-Gandhi family clash of titans. Did he, because he won the presidency against Sonia’s wishes? If so, why do we see that abiding regret at her and her dynasty never giving him the prize he really wanted, and thought he deserved, the prime ministership?
How do we know this? Of course, he doesn’t tell you in any headline-making, even tweet-worthy line. You have to read all four volumes and then decide if in his own eyes, he was a winner or a loser.