A Man of Honour

The third instalment of former President Pranab Mukherjee’s autobiography is a candid glimpse into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the government and the Congress party

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Published: October 21, 2017 2:52:01 am

An old-school politician, Pranab Mukherjee ensured the sanctity of the offices he held. Express Archive

Name: The Coalition Years: 1996-2012
Author: Pranab Mukherjee
Publication: Rupa Publications
Pages: 312 pages
Price: 595

Former President Pranab Mukherjee was once described by a magazine as “the man who knew too much.” But the veteran insider in the corridors of power, whom Sonia Gandhi credits with having “the memory of two elephants’’, has also a cautious and circumspect disposition. His autobiography is not a bare-all memoir. The Turbulent Years, Part Two of his autobiography was a bit of a damp squib, probably because the author was the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan when the book was released. But now that he is out of office, Part Three of Mukherjee’s memoirs, which covers the period between 1996-2012, is far more candid about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the government and the Congress party.

Mukherjee occasionally resorts to the ploy of citing media reports of that time to convey what he wishes to say. Thus, when Sonia Gandhi appointed Manmohan Singh instead of him as Prime Minister, he quotes the surprise in the media that while he had vast experience in government, Singh’s bio-data was that of a civil servant with just five years as a reformist finance minister. Clearly, this was what a hurt Mukherjee himself thought privately. The author admits that he was reluctant to work under Singh, who had been his junior when he was the finance minister. Sonia Gandhi, however, prevailed on Mukherjee.

He reluctantly acquiesced. As prime minister, Manmohan Singh relied heavily on Mukherjee, who assumed many prime ministerial responsibilities. It was Mukherjee who decided the seating order of the ministers in Parliament and presided over some 95 GoMs (Group of Ministers) and EGoMs. The preponderance of GoMs was a way of establishing an effective decision- making process by virtually bypassing cabinet meetings.

The author admits candidly that he has a short fuse. At one stage, with the PM’s blessings, he asked all officials to leave the cabinet room. He then yelled at his ministerial colleagues that, in his long experience, he had never seen such cabinet meetings where endless discussions led to no decision. Some shocked allies threatened that the UPA government could collapse as they would not accept dictatorship. The Singh government quietly substituted the GoMs as the decision-making bodies to get around the unending talk shops that were the cabinet meetings.

Because of Mukherjee’s long experience and knowledge of both the government and the party, his services were often sought by the Congress for crisis management. For instance, in 1998, Sitaram Kesri, the then Congress president, refused to step down. The party was in a fix since the Congress constitution, while detailed on how a president was to be appointed, was silent on how he or she was to be removed. Mukherjee studied the constitution and discovered a clause which entitled the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to resort to appropriate solutions, subject to ratification by the AICC. A CWC was called at short notice. Kesri, who refused to fade away quietly and take the initiative in inviting Sonia Gandhi to take charge of the party, accused Mukherjee and some others of hatching a conspiracy. As president, Kesri declared the CWC meeting closed.

However, the president’s declaration was ignored and Mukherjee was asked to preside in Kesri’s absence. The CWC adopted a resolution thanking Kesri for his offer to resign in case Sonia Gandhi expressed her willingness to accept the Congress presidency. The resolution was based entirely on reports in the media about Kesri’s alleged intentions and not his actual actions. All the same, Kesri was left with no option but to step down and Gandhi was formally elected party president by the AICC in April 1998.

In explaining the circumstances of his own appointment as President, Mukherjee  simply states the fact and lets the readers reach their own conclusions. Sonia Gandhi had reservations about Mukherjee as a Congress candidate even in the 2007 presidential election when the Left parties proposed his name. She informed Prakash Karat that there was no substitute for Mukherjee as leader in the Lok Sabha and no one else was as knowledgeable about party affairs. Once again, in 2012, Mukherjee’s name made the rounds and there seemed a general consensus on his name, except for her. Even M J Akbar met Mukherjee and informed him that both LK Advani and Jaswant Singh, then opposition leaders in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha respectively, would support him if Congress officially nominated him. This conversation was never made public. Though most in the Congress wanted Mukherjee, Gandhi continued to be reluctant. At one point Mukherjee was even inclined to believe the rumour that since he was considered so indispensable, Manmohan Singh might become the President and the Prime Minister.

Curiously, Sonia Gandhi finally agreed to Mukherjee as the party’s choice only after Mamata Banerjee spoke out vehemently against Mukherjee’s candidature. Banerjee’s actions at this juncture were puzzling. She kept oscillating. She first proposed Mukherjee’s name to Gandhi, then she took a U-turn and announced her support for a second term for Abdul Kalam in public the next day along with Mulayam Singh Yadav. Although Banerjee publicly opposed  Mukherjee, he received a message from her during his presidential campaign saying “Tell Dada not to worry about me.” Mukherjee writes, “I had a feeling that Mamata would come around which is why I maintained a stoic silence”. His analysis of Banerjee is that she does not do things casually according to whims. Behind her emotional outbursts she has a cool, calculated and well worked-out strategy. But Mukherjee does not spell out in this case just what was Banerjee’s strategy. Certainly, Mukherjee bares no ill will towards Gandhi. His shrewd assessment of his former party chief is that “her detachment and her decision of not being aligned with anybody in particular is her greatest strength.’’

Mukherjee, in his introductory chapter, warns against disturbing trends in today’s politics, such as the declining time in Parliament devoted to debate, and legislation passed without proper discussion. As a former president, Mukherjee is concerned about the tendency to pass ordinances ignoring the Parliament. He points out there have been 28 ordinances in the three years of the current Lok Sabha. So why did he as President of India not object? Mukherjee writes that, on several occasions, his observations on ordinances were communicated to the concerned minister or the Prime Minister. But he ensured that such differences did not come under the media glare. An old-school politician, that is not Mukherjee’s style.

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