Pranab Mukherjee is probably our best informed political figure. Regrettably, at least for us journalists, he is also among the most discreet. Those of us who have interacted with him also know that the leader he really idol-worshipped, and still admires, is Indira Gandhi. No wonder the story he tells you most joyfully is how Indira Gandhi used to say for him that once something goes inside his belly, it never comes out. Except the smoke from his pipe.
It is remarkable, therefore, that he has chosen to start publishing a sizeable memoir. The Turbulent Years is how he describes the 1980-96 period that this volume spans. The first one, published last year, had talked about a period prior to this. Of course, we would have preferred it if he had gone a little bit further, at least till the return of the Congress party to power in 2004. You can see, however, the reason Pranabda would rather not go there yet. Too many of the players of that period are still in active politics, notably Sonia Gandhi. That is why his description of the turbulent phase ends with the end of P V Narasimha Rao’s reign in 1996 and also, it seems, with his own pipe-smoking days.
The period under review, 1980-96, is no less turbulent. It begins with an event, Sanjay Gandhi’s death, that changes the Congress party’s politics and internal power equations dramatically. Until then, the succession issue was closed; now it was a little less so. Rajiv was inducted in politics. But he was new, still quite reluctant and not in the least as political as Sanjay. There was the possibility of an interregnum between Indira and him, and Pranab, only eight years older than Rajiv, was the obvious choice to fill that gap. Pranab’s writing is bewilderingly diplomatic at times, but if you have the patience, there are nuggets and a deeper insight into what went on in the minds of the key players in what was, until the end of the period in this volume, the politics of single-party rule.
The key to Pranab’s view of this period is his own sidelining and ostracism in Rajiv’s times. He uses the word “outcast” for himself, when no Congressman would stay in touch, or even acknowledge him, barring Kamalapati Tripathi and Narasimha Rao, affectionately mentioned as “PV”, indicating a special bond. The honesty with which he describes his years in political Siberia is impressive, even if not exactly packed with eloquent flourishes. He talks about hanging out all by himself in Parliament’s central hall after being dropped from the Cabinet, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and then also the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB). Nobody wanted to be seen with him then, which is easy to understand in Congress culture, particularly because everybody had witnessed his public humiliation. He was seconding the famous All-India Congress Committee resolution in 1985 in Bombay after Rajiv’s stirring “power-brokers” speech (which he says was vetted and cleared by CWC, including him). He was not even halfway through his speech, he records, when lunch was called and he had to stop abruptly. There he was dropped from the CWC.
Pranab is among the last few of the old-generation conventional, conservative, statist and yet wonderfully accessible politicians. His conservatism he acknowledges, and suggests it could have led to uneasiness with a more modern, tech-savvy Rajiv. But you can spot contradictions. He says Rajiv was welcoming of foreign investment, and wanted to open up the economy, while his own conservative mindset was inclined towards the public sector, confining foreign investments to non-resident Indians. But very early on, within the first month of Rajiv’s prime ministership when he continued as finance minister briefly in the Cabinet he inherited, he says he persuaded Rajiv against nationalising Union Carbide in a crisis group meeting on Bhopal. He said it would damage India’s cause when he was travelling around the world looking for foreign investment. He even said since Carbide was a big multinational, the move would be seen as equivalent to the Janata Party driving out Coca-Cola and IBM. Of course, he also says he reminded Rajiv that his was still a caretaker government and should not take substantive decisions, which Rajiv readily accepted. What doesn’t fully add up, therefore, is Pranab’s hypothesis that Rajiv and he fell out because he was still pro-public sector and Rajiv was open to private and foreign investment.
Pranab repeatedly says he never harboured thoughts of becoming interim prime minister after Indira’s assassination, though that may have been said by whisperers to plant suspicion in Rajiv’s mind. He insists he was among the first to suggest that Rajiv be sworn in. But he had two riders, arising from his sense of constitutional propriety. One, that the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) should formally elect Rajiv; and, two, that the swearing-in should wait till President Zail Singh returned to the capital later that evening.
The coterie around Rajiv was in a hurry, he says in his record of the goings-on in the corridors of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where Indira’s body was kept. P C Alexander, principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Arun Nehru, Rajiv’s buddy, wanted him sworn in at once, not wanting to wait for Zail Singh, whom they did not trust because of the (post-Bluestar) strain in his relations with the Gandhis. What if Singh refused to appoint Rajiv? Pranab, who was confident Singh would do no such thing, asked what would happen if he refused to recognise an appointment made by a vice-president to whom he had not delegated his authority as he was only out on a short trip within the country.
Pranab’s argument carried the day. Only the CPB “selected” Rajiv before the CPP could be called. Maybe the durbaris then took revenge, using what he himself calls his own conservatism. Pranab does raise a brave question — given that his two children have chosen careers with the Congress — on the propriety of a mere bureaucrat (Alexander) and a rank outsider (Arun Nehru) determining the choice of the new prime minister and the methodology of his appointment. But he doesn’t criticise it directly, simply saying that it was for academics and analysts to reflect on in the future. It would be simplistic to say he is pulling his punches. He is just being typically Pranab.