Pranab Mukherjee pens a fine yarn

Harihar Swarup

Political leaders after they retire from the high office they were holding, take to writing their biography or memoirs. There are some leaders who take to writing after they have fallen in bad times and see no ray of hope. Biographies and/or autobiographies of many of the top leaders reveal lot of unknown facts that eventually become part of history. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, among others, have written their autobiographies, and they are worth reading.
In recent times, among others, Arjun Singh and ML Fotedar have written their memoirs. The two leaders are no more but they have seen big events being made from close quarters, or they were themselves part of these events. The facts revealed by them have become part of history.
The latest is the third volume of former President Pranab Mukerjee’s memoirs – The Coalition Years: 1996-2012. In the first volume – The Dramatic Decade – he had dealt at length with his association with Indira Gandhi, who spotted him early and very quickly inducted him in his kitchen cabinet where he advised her on a range of critical issues.
The second volume – The Turbulent Years– deals with his pain-filled phase of political rebellion and isolation when he left the Congress party after Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister and remained in wilderness till PV Narasimha Rao rehabilitated him. In the recently released third volume, Pranab Babu, as he is called by his friends (those younger to him call him Pranab Da), he deals with the most important part of his political career where he is a member of the core team that scripted the return of the Congress to power in 2004.
In his narrative of the UPA years Pranab Babu was in thick of every major development or event during that period, and his insightful analysis in the book throw invaluable light on many unanswered questions. The third part also contains much-quoted line: “I thought if Sonia selected Manmohan for President, she may choose me as PM.” In his dealings in government and the party, he was known to be haughty and had an opinion on whatever was being discussed. He was famous for his short temper and could throw tantrum when he was not listened to.
Perhaps, the most interesting parts of the third volume are the ones where Pranab Babu describes his relationship with two key players in the UPA—Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Despite the fact that Sonia overlooked Mukherjee’s claim to become Prime Minister twice, he is almost effusive in his praise of her, expressing the opinion that she was competent enough to become PM herself. Though he was Manmohan Singh’s boss at one time, Pranab Babu gracefully acknowledges that Singh was the best choice as PM, praises him for his integrity and crowns him as the father of the economic reforms. Pranab Babu is self-effacing about his ambition to become prime minister and has no regrets. He gracefully accepts that given his lack of knowledge of Hindi, he was not to be considered for the post of prime minister.
The book deals at length with his stints in the ministries of defense, external affairs and finance. On the aftermath of 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008, Mukherjee was clear that he was against armed intervention against Pakistan and preferred to bring intense diplomatic pressure, particularly from the US, to shame Islamabad into taking action. There are a lot of intriguing anecdotes on how he helped Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina.
On the reasons why the UPA nosedived into ignominy in its second terms, Pranab Babu is strangely silent. While he is willing to record the good that the UPA achieved, he prefers to leave the evil. Though he shares some of the most important GoMs, his silence over the scams that beset the UPA is blaring. The infamous coal scam, the scandalous 2G scandal and the Commonwealth Games rip-up find no mention.
Some excerpts from the book: “After the Congress victory in General Elections 2004, the prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for prime minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. The expectation was possibly based on the fact that while I had extensive experience in government, while Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as reformist finance minister. Some media commentators reported that I would not join the government because I could not work under Manmohan, who had been my junior when I was finance minister. The fact was that I was reluctant to join the government, and informed Sonia Gandhi accordingly. She, however, insisted that I should join the government since I would be vital to its functioning and also be of support to Dr Singh. As it turned out PM would talk to me on all important issues and seemed to depend on me. We shared good working relation. Notwithstanding the debate regarding his appointment as Prime Minister, there could have been no one more experienced in economic policy making than Manmohan Singh.”
In the chapter – The Making of a President – Pranab Babu writes: “After a meeting with Sonia Gandhi I returned with the vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister. On June 13, Mamata Banerjee met Sonia Gandhi. Later, Sonia told me that Mamata had flagged off to her the names of two potential UPA nominees for the presidential election: Hamid Ansari and myself.” After Mamata discussed the matter with Mulayam Singh, Pranab Babu’s name was announced as UPA’s presidential nominee.
Pranab Babu ends the third volume at the point when he is elected president in 2012, thereby reserving the five years that he spent at Rashtrapati Bhavan for fourth volume. Let us wait for his presidential memoir. (IPA)

Friday, 27 October, 2017