Barring the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, Pranab Mukherjee is bound to succeed Pratibha Patil. Sonia Gandhi, pertinently, is undoing a big injustice by rewarding Pranab with the presidency of the republic in the twilight of his political life. Her late husband Rajiv Gandhi had unfairly thrown Pranab into the Congress dustbin. As luck would have it, Rajiv too was targeted over the Bofors deal. The bribery stigma haunted him until his death; he got a clean chit only posthumously, after years of vilification.
Pranab has been luckier. He eventually crawled out of the Congress dustbin and painstakingly proved his loyalty many times over for over two decades—belying Rajiv’s doubts in the bargain. And last week, Rajiv’s widow was left with no choice but to acknowledge Pranab’s unwavering loyalty to the Gandhi dynasty—Sonia included—and life-long services to the party by nominating him for the country’s highest constitutional post for the next five years.
Both Rajiv and Pranab bore the brunt of slanderous campaigns. Their victimisation is a fit subject for research by political scientists. But the irony is inescapable; Rajiv imperiously expelled Pranab from the Congress—only to come under a much bigger cloud himself soon after. The Bofors scandal destroyed Rajiv’s reputation and cost the Congress the 1989 elections. And he was assassinated while campaigning in 1991. The Delhi High Court cleared Rajiv of bribery charges many years later—as late as 2004—prompting Sonia’s remark that her husband always said that one day his innocence would be proved.
Photograph by Virendra Prabhakar/HT
Rajiv was even given good character certificates post facto by V.P. Singh, who engineered his downfall in the first place—long after his tragic death. In contrast, Pranab—a devout Brahmin and ardent believer in divine justice—not only outlived his tormentor but is now about to cap what must now count as the mother of all comebacks, one that would put Gen Douglas MacArthur to shame.
Abhijit Mukherjee, Pranab’s 52-year-old son, who left SAIL last year to become a Congress MLA in West Bengal and is now eyeing Pranab’s Jangipur parliamentary seat, says his father first stepped into the Rajya Sabha the day Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in July 1969. In 1973, he became a Union minister, and was re-elected in 1975 and 1981. Indira Gandhi, who had a soft corner for the Bengali babu, made Pranab the finance minister in 1982. Life was a bed of roses for Pranab; Indira frequently picked his brains, even as India’s richest men paid obeisance to him. But his world suddenly turned upside down on October 31, 1984, when Indira was gunned down.
Rajiv and Pranab were campaigning in West Bengal when Indira was shot dead in Delhi. They flew back to Delhi together. There are several versions of what transpired between them during the flight. Apparently, Rajiv asked Pranab who would be the interim PM. Playing with a straight bat, he informed Rajiv that the seniormost minister became interim PM after Nehru’s and Shastri’s death. Left unsaid was that Pranab was Indira’s seniormost minister.
Pranab’s matter-of-fact reply became an albatross around his neck. There are reports that after the fateful conversation, Pranab had retreated to the rear of the aircraft, where he wept for Indira. Subsequently, he was accused of sitting at a distance from Rajiv and plotting.
Pranab soon detected ominous signs. First, there were insinuations that he had prime ministerial ambitions. Then, Rajiv’s drum-beaters in the media announced that Pranab had forcefully staked his claim to the throne. Retribution for the ‘crime’ was swift. There was no place for Pranab in Rajiv’s brand new cabinet after the landslide victory. Pranab was branded not only ambitious and scheming, but corrupt and shady; Pranab turned into a pariah virtually overnight. There were orchestrated demands to sack him. And soon enough, Rajiv expelled him from the Congress.
There were reports of Pranab’s passport being impounded and his residences in Delhi and Calcutta being raided. Pushed to the wall, Pranab floated the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress Party, which contested the 1987 assembly polls in Bengal but didn’t win a single seat. Pranab’s misery piled up: he was not re-elected to the Rajya Sabha when his term expired in 1987; he ceased to be an MP after 17 long years. Clearly, Rajiv’s objective was to humiliate and marginalise Pranab, turning 1985-88 into the most depressing chapter of the would-be president’s life.
Swapan Ghosh, a Congress worker close to Pranab for 30 years, says that Rajiv-Pranab relations hit such a low that Pranab’s letter to Rajiv informing him about his father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee’s death was not answered. Pranab waited for a condolence message but in vain. When Pranab met Rajiv much later, Rajiv said he never got the letter. Swapan’s surmise is that Pranab’s letter was intercepted by the coterie surrounding Rajiv in those days and destroyed lest it evoked Rajiv’s sympathy and paved the way for Pranab’s return.
Robed form Pranab, known to be quite religious, at a Durga puja pandal
Rasheed Kidwai, Sonia’s biographer and author of 24 Akbar Road, believes Pranab is far too loyal and steeped in Congress culture to have posed a threat to Rajiv or Sonia. “Let’s call it a monumental misunderstanding. Pranab became a victim of palace intrigue. Many new faces had infiltrated Rajiv’s inner circle after Indira’s death. Their machinations—and Rajiv’s tendency to believe them—knocked Pranab out of orbit. So it took Rajiv, who probably realised his mistake, a while to pull Pranab back to where he belonged,” says Kidwai.
According to Abhijit, Pranab’s friends, like G.K. Moopanar, whose son G.K. Vasan is now the minister for shipping, played a key role in the rapprochement between Pranab and Rajiv. One fine morning, Pranab was given charge of the AICC media cell. Then, he was made AICC spokesman. Pranab was rehabilitated, but couldn’t regain his former glory during Rajiv’s lifetime. He had to wait until P.V. Narasimha Rao appointed him deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. In 1993, he re-entered the Rajya Sabha and was quickly reinducted into the cabinet as foreign minister.
Kidwai says Pranab’s political vanvaas was uncalled for: “An innocent man was unnecessarily hounded. If anyone wrecked Rajiv, it was V.P. Singh, Amitabh Bachchan and Arun Nehru. For V.P. Singh, loyalty was a means to further his own career. The moment he got an opportunity, he stabbed Rajiv in the back and felled him. Rajiv could never recover from that blow. Similarly, Amitabh’s act of vacating the Allahabad seat helped the opposition regroup and attack Rajiv. Amitabh cleared the deck for V.P. Singh’s victory in the byelection which sent a clear message that Rajiv could be humbled despite his 415 Lok Sabha seats. And I would go along with Priyanka in her assessment of Arun Nehru as a saboteur and the enemy within.” There is no dearth of analysts who believe that the Bofors scandal wouldn’t have extracted such a big toll if Rajiv had reposed his faith in politicians of the Indira school like Pranab, instead of gunning for them for no rhyme or reason.
In a sense, Sonia is a far more deft politician than Rajiv. Her astuteness is actually what allowed Pranab to regain his merited niche in the hierarchy. She has the knack of choosing horses for courses. So she gave Pranab the task of eliminating Sitaram Kesri and instructed Jitendra Prasada to provide operational support. The plot to get rid of Sitaram—who wanted to remain Congress president until his death so that his body could be draped in the party flag and cremated—was hatched in Pranab’s house, culminating in the March 14, 1998, coup. Sonia gleefully replaced Sitaram as party president—a post she still holds, making her the longest serving president in Congress history.
A year later, Sonia again turned to Pranab to deal with Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar and P.A. Sangma, who had raised the bogey of her Italian roots to evict her from power. Pranab dutifully led the rearguard action against the mutineers. People in the know also acknowledge it was Pranab who helped draft Sonia’s letters during that period. Pranab’s English is not the best in the English-speaking or Hindi-speaking world, but his insight into Indian politics certainly is.
The countdown for the coronation of India’s first president with political clout has begun. As heavyweights of various political hues, including staunch anti-Congress leaders like Bal Thackeray and Maneka Gandhi, pledge their support to Pranab, one wonders if his sweeping acceptance across the length and breadth of India has set alarm bells ringing at 10 Janpath. Maybe Sonia is just amused as the pace of electioneering for the 14th president quickens.
Pranab Mukherjee would probably have been okay as prime minister; for the august office of president, he doesn’t fit the bill (The Quiet Comeback Artist, Jul 2). It is rumoured that he once kicked a worker of his own party in Calcutta. Will any media house broadcast footage of this incident or write about it? If, as a leader, he could kick a party worker, as a president, he might end up kicking his countrymen.
Harish Naik, Bangalore
Forget the gossip, Pranabda is the best choice for the post of president.
Manas Mukhopadhyay, Chinsurah, Hooghly
There’s an error in your report on Pranab. When he was rehabilitated in the Congress, he was made chief of the economic advisory cell (not the media cell, as you write) and later deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.
Girish Mishra, New Delhi
Pranab has been a terrible finance minister, so it’s good he vacates that chair. I hope Montek Singh Ahluwalia is made the finance minister.
A. Alagappan, Chennai
Pranab is known as the Chanakya of the political world. But as president, he will have little to contribute to the nation.
Jayatheertha S.A., Hyderabad
Pranab’s a good choice, but it’s sad he is a politician. In choosing persons for the country’s highest office, we seem to be unable to rise above party and coalition politics. When we think of presidents like Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy or K.R. Narayanan, our heads bow in respect. That’s the kind of president we need: one whose picture every school and college can proudly put up.
Col R.D. Singh, Ambala Cantt
Report is good, but there is one error. After he was rehabilated, Pranab Mukharjee was not appointed chief of AICC Media Cell but of Economic Advisory Cell and was given a room at 24 Akbar Road. After some time, he became Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission.
Sir, I would like to convey my heartest best wishes to Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. He is the best choice for the Presidential post of India......He has the capability to prove himself fit for the post. Forget the gossips of the jealous people whose present were seen everywhere in politics to make the situation worse for the shake of their narrow interest..... I think the people of Bengal will be happy to see you as the President of India.
Sir, I would like to convey my heartest best wishes to Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. He is the best choice for Presidentia post......He has the capability to prove himself fit for the post. Forget the gossips of the jealous people whoes present were seen everywhere in politics to make the situation worse for the shake of their narrow interest..... I think the people of Bengal will be happy to see you as the President of India.
“ Appeal to Opinion Makers of India ”
The coming Presidential election is marked by political brinkmanship. With the electronic media covering intra-party and intra-coalition splits on minute-by-minute basis , locating the ‘consensus’ candidate by all political parties, was impossible. Pranab Mukherjee, the “Sankat Mochak” of the Congress emerged as its nominee. The Congress’s supremo is ecstatic as Rahul Baba’s elevation as PM after 2014 general elections, would be hurdle-free.
Intensity of politicking reportedly marked by alleged secret deals like gifting Cabinet berths, slowing down investigations in DA cases against corrupt politicians has exposed the quid pro quo culture of Indian polity. Appearance of SP and its bête noire BSP on the same page alongside the Congress re-inforces the belief that “Ends are more important than the Means”. This paradigm shift in ethos spells disaster for the country.
Let the eggheads of the country unite.
The moot point is : Could the Opinion Makers including intellectuals, social activists , teachers, Editors, Journalists, retired judges and civil servants ,et el remain as mute witnesses ? In the face of present turbulence in Indian polity, could they not spread awareness among members of Electoral College about the ideal of “ voting as per dictates of conscience”.
I am baffled by Media’s silence. Not a single editorial, column or panel discussion was witnessed. in the mainstream print and electronic media.
A K SAXENA (A retired civil servant)
"t, a loyalist of the dynasty turned President of India will have the discretion to decide whom to invite. A master stroke from Sonia.."
Or may be a political blunder caused in part by Mamata. After Indira was shot, Pranab boarded the plane in Calcutta with the knowledge that he will be the next PM. By the time he landed in Delhi, Rajiv and Zail Zingh worked out a coup and displaced Pranab. The rookie Rajiv became the PM.
I do not know if Pranab had forgotten that insult. Who knows? He might like to give it right back if he got a chance. We have to wait and see.
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