When Sharmistha Mukherjee, Congress’ national spokesperson and daughter of former President Pranab Mukherjee, pulled up P. Chidambaram on Twitter for congratulating the Aam Aadmi Party on winning the Delhi assembly election, she proved that dynastic grudges run deep in the Congress party, even if dynasties don’t. Congress veterans Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram have had a long history of differences with each other.
What Sharmistha Mukherjee said goes beyond just dynastic grudges. It is easy to dismiss her – like some did – by reminding her about her father Pranab gracing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur in June 2018.
But Sharmistha’s response struck at the heart of an important debate about the Congress’ game plan – or the lack of it – of defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That a restless young dynast would question the Congress sloth is significant.
With due respect sir, just want to know- has @INCIndia outsourced the task of defeating BJP to state parties? If not, then why r we gloating over AAP victory rather than being concerned abt our drubbing? And if ‘yes’, then we (PCCs) might as well close shop! https://t.co/Zw3KJIfsRx
— Sharmistha Mukherjee (@Sharmistha_GK) February 11, 2020
Sharmistha wasn’t the only one. Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jairam Ramesh also called for much-needed introspection – only, such remarks are becoming a ritual after every election defeat.
Member of a group caught in a fix
But Sharmistha Mukherjee’s story is symbolic of the crisis that confronts young Congress loyalists, whether or not they are dynasts. At a time when the party is struggling for direction and energy, it is the young who get most restless.
Those with a mass base – like Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh – are able to strike out on their own after paying their dues. In Jaganmohan’s case, it was through a padayatra thanking people for mourning his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s demise. Others like Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s education minister, have exercised the option of joining the BJP and taking their winning tactics there because they were put off by the leadership choosing a second-generation dynast over them.
For the majority though, staying on is the only viable strategy, even if they don’t agree with the regional leadership. Former Mumbai Congress chief Milind Deora is representative of this group.
No room for other dynasts
Like many second-generation Congress leaders, Sharmistha Mukherjee was airdropped into the party, but has failed to find her feet in it, and is growing increasingly restless and frustrated. Like others, she knows the problem, that the Congress has room for only one dynasty, but can do little about it. In the recent past, Mukherjee twice had to fend off rumours about leaving Congress, once for the AAP and again for the BJP.
But her staying on in the Congress hasn’t helped either, certainly not in Delhi, for which she apologised on Twitter.
Veteran journalist Rasheed Kidwai says her entry into politics is typical of the Congress’ ”deal” politics. Her brother Abhijit Mukherjee and she were given easy access to safe seats, possibly in return for their father not writing a tell-all biography that showed the Gandhis in a poor light.
In 2012, Abhijit won the Jangipur Lok Sabha seat after Pranab Mukherjee vacated it to become India’s president. He retained the seat in the 2014 election but lost it in 2019 to Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s Khalilur Rehman.
In Sharmistha’s case, who was one of the first to criticise her clearly less articulate brother over his infamous “dented and painted” comment for women participating in the protest marches against the 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder, the Congress gave her a ticket from Greater Kailash constituency – where she owns a flat since 1985 – in the 2015 Delhi assembly election. (She also has a home in Ranikhet in Uttarakhand and, according to her affidavit, she is a fairly wealthy singleton, with assets worth Rs 2.9 crore.) Greater Kailash was a constituency where Congressman Virendra Kasana was quite popular, though he stood third in the 2013 contest that AAP’s Saurabh Bhardwaj won. In typical Congress style, Kasana’s claims were brushed aside for Sharmistha.
Kathak dancer yet to sing political tune
A member of the Congress since 2014, Sharmistha Mukherjee is better known as a Kathak dancer than a politician. Her solitary attempt at electoral politics in 2015 saw her bag only 6,000 votes. Samir Banerjee, her long-time neighbour, helped her in the campaign. Describing her as a “lovely lady”, he recalls that the entire Residents’ Welfare Association had worked for her but to no avail.
Since then, Mukherjee, 55, has spent most of her time in TV studios as one of the Congress’ national spokespersons – she was part of NDTV’s debate that saw journalist-anchor Nidhi Razdan throw BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra out of the show – speaking out on Twitter (sometimes even against her own father); and managing Pranab’s schedule. She spends a lot of time at Pranab Mukherjee’s official residence on Rajaji Marg. She has also been more than forthright about her party’s problems, saying they need to come out of their “exalted echo chambers”, and indicating that there is “inordinate delay in decision making at the top”.
But, as Kidwai says, democracy is all about winning elections. “Look at a person like Raghav Chadha in AAP. He worked his way up through the party cadre, fought the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, lost it, contested from Rajinder Nagar this time in the Assembly elections, won. AAP has so many success stories like him. BJP has ideological sharpness. What is preventing Congress from emulating AAP?”
Sharmistha Mukherjee is clearly her father’s favourite and he often quotes her in his writing. In The Coalition Years: 1996-2012, for instance, he relays a message she had sent to him from Ranikhet when his name was first rejected by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee as a possible candidate for president. “She quoted a few lines from one of Tagore’s famous songs (which I myself frequently consoled people with): Dukhero naatey nikhilo dhora jedin koney bonchonatomarey jeno na kori shongshoy (so that on the darkest of nights when the world turns away I may not doubt your benevolent presence.),” Pranab Mukherjee wrote in his book.
Finding her political voice
Tagore is quite a passion for Sharmistha Mukherjee, who inherited the love for his songs from her mother, Suvra, who set up the Geetanjali Troupe, with an aim to disseminate Tagore’s philosophy through song and dance. She passed away in 2015. Mukherjee has often choreographed tributes to Tagore.
Sharmistha Mukherjee studied at Lady Irwin School and then went to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for her post-graduation in sociology. She learned Kathak with Pandit Durgalal, Uma Sharma and Rajendra Gangani. Noted critic Ashish Mohan Khokhar calls her an honest person in art and life.
“She has no delusions of grandeur, so common in Delhi. She does thorough research before staging a production and has done a lot of work in films and modern dance,” Khokhar told me. He makes a special mention of her dance drama from City of Shiva – Banaras, and her series on dance, Taal Mel, which ran on Doordarshan in 1989 and was quite popular. Her producer for the show then is now BJP’s national spokesperson, Nalin Kohli.
It is a pity that like many second-generation dynasts, Sharmistha Mukherjee chose to ignore her core competence and opted for a lateral entry into politics. Winning people’s hearts with dance is clearly quite different from winning their electoral mandate.
With one tweet, she has found a bold, political voice that many studio appearances failed to yield. What she does with this voice will now shape where her career goes. Nothing that she has done so far suggests that she has a follow-up plan.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.