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Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi: The enfant terrible of Indian politics who became one of India’s finest leaders

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Dasmunsi was an outstanding mass mobiliser, persuasive orator, street-smart political fighter and more, Mani Shankar Aiyar writes in a tribute to his friend.

Golden lads and girls all must
Like chimney sweepers
Come to dust

At the astonishingly young age of 27, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi shot to the higher echelons of our political personalities when he was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1971. He was clearly destined to be a new and dynamic face of the Congress far into the future. He came to recognition as an outstanding mass mobiliser; a persuasive orator of skill and eloquence; a street-smart political infighter; a proud Bengali with deep knowledge of his cultural heritage; yet, withal, a proud Indian too; a socialist in the mould of the radical ‘70s; an enthusiastic sportsman with a particular penchant for football; and a parliamentarian who smoothly moved into gear on the floor of the house. He also appeared to be a determined bachelor – but that changed decades later when Deepa entered his life.

The Emergency and its aftermath brought on for him a personal crisis. He had to decide whether to remain with Indira Gandhi after her electoral defeat in 1977. He decided to go with the other Congress. He was soon disillusioned and sought a return to the Congress fold. He was admitted back, but it was not until the Rajiv era that he found his feet again.

I was personally witness to the immense affection Rajiv Gandhi had for him. Given the bankruptcy of the party leadership in West Bengal, Rajiv Gandhi hoped an infusion of young blood might enable the Congress to take on the might of Jyoti Basu’s communist machine in the 1987 state assembly election. It was on that campaign that I got to know Priya. We had to work together on speaking notes, fitting into the larger format points specific to the constituency in which we would be touching down next.

Priya turned out to be an encyclopaedia on matters of micro-concern to each of these varied and diverse electorates. Moreover, we had to somehow fit as many election meetings as possible into the limited time available, especially given that elections were also taking place simultaneously in J&K and Kerala. We would fly into West Bengal late at night from one or the other of the other two states going to the polls and then, after a grueling day on the road from dawn till the wee hours, be off next night to either Jammu or Cochin, at the time the only airports with night landing facilities. Whether past midnight or at the crack of dawn, a smiling Priya would always be on hand, bursting with energy and verve to move on with the campaign.

Of course, the media began to ask who would be heading the next government were the Congress to prevail. Rajiv Gandhi would attempt to deflect the question, but the unspoken indication was that Priya would get the opportunity. Many mocked this implicit suggestion. But the fact is that both the Congress and the Left Front gained six points each over their previous performance. Although the Left won, Priya deserved the kudos he got for a well-fought campaign.

After the campaign, Rajiv asked Jyoti Basu whether he had any complaints about the Congress campaign. Jyoti Basu replied that his only objection was to Rajiv calling him “old”! The contrast with Priya could not have been starker!

Priya had to bide his time before he became older. Meanwhile, Mamata began her irresistible move up the political pole sidelining any rival of her generation, including Priya. But by 1999, when Priya was well into his fifties – and, therefore, no longer the enfant terrible of his youth – Sonia Gandhi appointed him chief whip. He loved his new role. He threw himself into the floor struggles with considerable panache. His moment came when he was tipped off about the Tehelka tapes. Within minutes of their being screened, Priya led the charge demanding the resignation of the BJP – and especially its leaders caught red-handed on Tehelka’s hidden cameras. It was the beginning of the end for Vajpayee’s NDA government.

So when the Congress-led UPA prevailed in the 2004 elections, Priya was the obvious choice for a place in the cabinet. He was entrusted with the water resources portfolio. He had earlier had a stint as N.D. Tiwari’s minister of state for commerce but it was in cabinet, where we sat next to each other, he one place senior to me, that he showed his mettle.

Alas, we had something of a falling-out over my adamant objections, as sports minister, over the goings-on in Suresh Kalmadi’s Organising Committee for the Commonwealth Games. It would indeed have been wiser to have a sports enthusiast like Priya handle the sports ministry, rather than me who has never ever been on a golf course. Eventually, my apprehensions proved correct and the games marked the decline in the public perception of the Manmohan Singh government, notwithstanding its many achievements. But my differences with Priya on these games rather soured our long friendship that had by then weathered over two decades of comradeship.

I very greatly regret that because Priya suddenly fell ill at the start of UPA-II (of which I was not a part as I had lost the 2009 election). He briefly emerged from his hospital room, but was soon back in a coma that lasted all these years when he seemed not to recognise anyone nor have any connection to the world without. But what went on in his mind through all the traumatic years he lived in a virtually vegetative state only he knew. It is perhaps a merciful release that he has now gone on to the “bourne from which no traveller returns”.

I wish him peace there, the peace that eluded him in his final years on earth. He deserved much better, and I will always regret not only our parting of ways but, much more, the Congress and the country being deprived of this quintessential politician who combined political skill amounting to genius with a keen, cultivated and enquiring mind. Goodbye, Priya. May “a flight of angels take thee to thy rest”.

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