Monday, 16 May, 2022
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How retrospective restraint prevents Pranab Mukherjee from saying he was a winner or loser

‘The Presidential Years’ avoids real political issues, refuses to go into details, hides a lot more than it tells, and is therefore a big let-down.

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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.

Also readMany in Congress will agree with Pranab Mukherjee’s view on leadership but won’t speak up

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.

Also read: Ignored by Gandhis, Pranab Mukherjee is too clever a politician to let RSS use him

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.

Also read: History will be kind to Manmohan Singh: Pranab Mukherjee


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  1. Is this a national interest story? What has happened to print? Deadlock in collegium: CJI may retire without any appointment to SC is a far more important story about the judiciary and executive branch in perpetual clash. Apart from Hindi heartland, you do not seem interested with stories of national interest. So be it.

  2. Mr.Shekar Gupta has not addressed the more important question: How did this woman of Italian origin acquire so much political power in India that she could gift presidency, prime ministership, or vice president’s post to whomsoever she pleased? How did an extra constitutional body like National Advisory Council interfere with government’s work for one full decade? Please do a CTC or write an article on this topic.

  3. Rajiv read Pranab da well in the 80s itself – a traitor in the making. The problem of the Congress has been its inability to execute generational changes swiftly and smoothly – whether in AP or WB or Delhi itself. Pranab da will be remembered as a mediocre “statist” politician (Guptaji’s word) who had the opportunity but did not stop the free downfall of India’s vibrant economy – first as FM with his tax policies and then as President during Modi’s disastrous demonetisation.

  4. Ram Jethmalani says Mr. Mukherjee was given the list of Indian account holders in Swiss banks by the German governmnet but he preferred not to disclose their names in the hope he could get some dividend from Gandhi family. In all his years, he worked more for himself and his family than for the country.

  5. Glad to know that Saint Sonia’s choice for president was thwarted by the man who would become our 13th president.

    Saint Sonia’s appointment of her cook and loan defaulter as the 12th president caused so much heartburn for Congress stalwarts who had thrown their hat in the ring.

  6. The clash between Pranab and the Gandhis was no clash of titans but one between pygmies. Pranab like all Congressmen of his ilk lacked conviction and courage to seek approval from the voter.
    The only reason he grudged MMS being selected for the post of PM was because he himself wanted to be a selected PM. For all his constitutional properiety, he had no issues with a PM not elected by the people. Just as he had no issues with India violating it’s own laws in the name of sovereignty. The truth is that Pranab like the rest of his Congress colleagues failed when it mattered most and made no small contribution to the decimation of the Congress party by his words (lack of them) and more importantly his actions.

  7. President Pranab Mukherjee was certainly not a loser. A very touching tribute was paid to him by his daughter Ms Sharmistha after he passed away. The image which forms before my eyes is of a young child standing before a river swollen during the monsoon, which he must cross to reach school. He completed that journey and has walked a long way since. Given his pluses and minuses, he achieved a lot in life. 2. The manner in which the Congress leadership dealt with the affairs of Andhra Pradesh, the succession issue when the CM died in a chopper crash, the creation of Telangana, does not show Smt Sonia Gandhi’s political acumen in a favourable light.

  8. Dada was a disaster as FM. May be politically, he had relevance but in general, his contribution to Indian economy as FM was hugely negative. He might have been denied is dues by Rajeev and later by Sonia but that is his issue. and not for us all as such, Modi awarded him Bharat Ratna for whatever reason ( and ahead of Narsimha Rao!) but that favor somehow exalted his stature further. Of course, he was honest, well read, articulate, a true congressman but that is all. So let us not feel let down by what he does not reveal as expected by Shekhar.

  9. pranab mukherji was one of those leaders without follwers. and another one is chidambaram.

  10. don’t know about what he thinks about himself. But in general public eyes pranab da was synonymus with respect.
    he wasn’t the chamcha of a dynasty like chiddambaram’s and kamal nath’s.

    Indian democracy is poorer without dada. respect for modi for appreciating his contribution with a bharat ratna. pranab da truely was/is/will be a bharat ratna.

  11. hahaha. Does Gupta expect Shri Pranab Mukherjee to tell what he wants to hear. with a distinguish record of public service and political leader he has a right to decide what is to be said and what not. if he would have gone on to condemn the Gandhi family probably Gupta would have been happy. and that is where the difference lies. Shri Mukherjee is a thorough gentleman. hahaha

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