“I will miss his tantrums” is what Congress president Sonia Gandhi said while bidding farewell to Pranab Mukherjee from the Congress Working Committee at a meeting which formally approved his name as the UPA’s presidential nominee in June 2012. “After briefing the meeting on the presidential election, Sonia Gandhi bid me an emotional farewell…Thereafter, with a mischievous smile she looked at me and said ‘Along with that, of course, I will miss some of his tantrums’,” Mukherjee writes in his just-launched book, ‘The Coalition Years’.
The former president’s third political memoir gives several accounts of how the UPA chairperson remained reluctant to approve his name for the country’s top constitutional post despite often acknowledging that he was the “most suited” for the office. Recalling the events in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2007 and 2012, Mukherjee said the Congress chief told him that he could not be spared by the party on account of the “crucial role” he played for it in the UPA government and Parliament.
Narrating the sequence of the Congress Working Committee meeting on June 25, 2012, at the 7 Race Course Road residence of the prime minister, Mukherjee noted Gandhi, then prime minister Manmohan Singh, party office-bearers and chief ministers present at the meeting finally gave him the green signal to run for the presidential office.
Mukherjee earlier said that on May 29, 2012, the Congress president’s political secretary Ahmed Patel had informed him that Gandhi had perhaps finalised his name as the party’s presidential nominee but was also exploring the possibility of adequate support for then Vice President Hamid Ansari. “The bone of contention about my nomination remained the same as that in 2007,” the former president said in the book referring to Gandhi’s refrain over sparing him from the government.
Mukherjee said that on June 2, 2012, he met Sonia Gandhi. “She told me frankly, ‘Pranabji you are the most eminently suited for the office, but you should not forget the crucial role you are playing in the functioning of the government. Could you suggest an alternative?” Mukherjee records in the book, adding that he told Gandhi he would abide by whatever decision she took.
“The meeting ended and I returned with a vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister. I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in the Kaushambhi hills,” Mukherjee says in the book.
He said there was no doubt that Gandhi considered him as an organisation man as she once chose him to reply in Parliament on a crucial topic when there was commotion by the then opposition BJP members. “The matter (in Parliament) was thus sorted out, but not before Sonia Gandhi commented, ‘This is why you (Mukherjee) can’t be the President’,” he wrote.
Disclosing dramatic events ahead of his name being cleared for the top post, Mukherjee documents that TMC chief Mamata Banerjee met Gandhi on June 13, 2012, and later Gandhi told him that the TMC chief had suggested two probables -– Mukherjee himself and Ansari, and also told her that she was in discussion with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and would inform her of the decision accordingly.
“I am not aware of the discussion at Mulayam Singh Yadav’s residence. But at a press conference jointly held that evening, they declared that their presidential nominees were APJ Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee, in that order.
“Mamata Banerjee also mentioned her meeting with Sonia Gandhi and insisted that Sonia Gandhi had suggested two names –- Hamid Ansari and Pranab Mukherjee -– both of which were unacceptable to them. I heard of this development but chose not to comment. A certain disappointment spread amongst my family and friends…,” Mukherjee says. He later writes that the same night he received a call from Sonia Gandhi requesting for a meeting the next morning.
“On June 14, I went to Sonia Gandhi at 11 am and had a long discussion with her. I found her to be in a decisive mood. She told me about her meeting with Mamata Banerjee. She was dismayed that Mamata Banerjee had not informed us about her decision after the meeting with Mulayam Singh Yadav and, instead, had disclosed information to the media,” he said. Mukherjee said later Gandhi told him that the matter be discussed further at the Core Group meeting the same evening.
After a slew of meetings, Manmohan Singh informed Mukherjee of a joint decision to nominate him as the presidential election nominee of the UPA. “Both of them were seized of the fact that we could not afford to lose the presidential election,” he said. Chronicling the incidents leading to the 2007 presidential election, Mukherjee said, “When Manmohan Singh was holding discussions with the coalition partners on the presidential nominee I was told my name was proposed by the Left parties first and then seconded by others.”
The former president said the final decision was left to the Congress party. “Sonia Gandhi called me and said, ‘your name is being suggested by some political parties as the presidential candidate, but it would be difficult for me to spare you as you are a strong pillar of the party in the government and in Parliament’,” he said in the book.
Later, Mukherjee said CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat told him that during the latter’s meeting with Gandhi, she ruled out his name citing a number of reasons, including the fact that she did not have a substitute for him as the Leader of the Lok Sabha. Mukherjee also narrated the incident when Gandhi was to appoint a Prime Minister after she declined to take up the position in 2004.
“There was intense speculation in the party and the media about her choice. Within the Congress party the consensus was that the incumbent must be a political leader with experience in party affairs and administration. Finally she named Dr Manmohan Singh as her choice and he accepted. “The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. This expectation was possibly based on the fact that I had extensive experience in government, while Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist finance minister,” he wrote in the book.