The Marathon man gets his due

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Pranab Mukherjee was one of ‘Sanjay’s boys’, tipped for bigger things before getting sidelined.  Ashok Malik turns back the clock to 1984 to find out what went wrong for the President-in-waiting

Patience pays After playing second fiddle for so long, Pranab Mukherjee can finally embrace his destiny
Patience pays After playing second fiddle for so long, Pranab Mukherjee can finally embrace his destiny
Photo: AFP

PRANAB MUKHERJEE has been such a permanent fixture in the Congress, it is a wonder how the party will do without him when he moves to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Part of his stature is due to the fact that he is the rare politician who has worked with Indira and Sonia Gandhi, as well as Sanjay and Rajiv. The irony being that of the four Nehru-Gandhi dynasty leaders, his relationship with Rajiv was the most troubled. Yet it is Sonia, Rajiv’s wife, who is sending Pranab to the top of Raisina Hill.

The equation between Sonia and Pranab has been the subject of forensic examination and enormous speculation in Delhi in the eight years of the UPA regime. His utility to the party and the government has been unquestioned, even acknowledged as such by Sonia. Nevertheless, she overlooked him for the prime ministry in 2004 and the presidency in 2007 — though he was keen on the job. He was the party’s best candidate in 2012, but not its instinctive first choice, not till Mamata Banerjee’s rebellion forced the Congress to plump for the politician most likely to get support from the rest of its alliance partners.

What is the origin of the perceived distrust between Sonia and the man she has now accepted as President of India? It goes back to when her husband was prime minister. Pranab is alleged to have shown ambitions in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. He was sidelined when Rajiv took over.

In 1986, he left the Congress to set up the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, got nowhere and came back to the Congress just before the 1989 Lok Sabha election. Rajiv himself died soon after, but the turbulence of that period was to haunt Pranab for a long, long time.

What happened in 1984? Did Pranab really act out of turn? Was he a victim of a conspiracy and party rivals seeking to poison a young and insecure leader’s ears? Before attempting to answer that question, some background is necessary.

Pranab came into the Congress’ upper echelons in the mid-1970s. He was introduced to Sanjay by Kamal Nath, a school friend of the younger Gandhi from his Doon days, and a fellow Calcuttan who knew Pranab from local politics. When the Congress returned to power in 1980, following the Janata interlude, Sanjay’s people were all over the place. R Gundu Rao in Karnataka, AR Antulay in Maharashtra, VP Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Arjun Singh in Madhya Pradesh: a series of chief ministers were “Sanjay’s boys”, part of a generation change in Congress politics.

In the Union government, Sanjay’s most prominent appointee was Pranab, who succeeded R Venkataraman as finance minister in early 1982. He was only 46, seen as some sort of whizkid. Two years later, he was named Euromoney magazine’s “Finance Minister of the Year” — a prize Manmohan Singh was to get in 1993. Nobody quite knew what the accolade amounted to, but in an India that still craved recognition from the West, it earned Pranab newspaper headlines.

Indira’s Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) had three integral figures — Venkataraman, the defence minister who became vice-president in August 1982; PV Narasimha Rao, foreign and then home minister; and Pranab.

By 1984, Pranab was the go-to man in the Indira Cabinet, the person responsible for carrying out political decisions taken by the prime minister and the CCPA. Not yet 50, he had caught up with Rao, some 15 years his senior.

Then came 31 October 1984 — and the momentous morning of Indira’s murder. Rajiv was in West Bengal, and flew back to New Delhi with Pranab, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury and a few others. It was already clear Indira was gone (though the news had been kept from the media and public). It was a crazy day, as the president, Giani Zail Singh, was in Yemen, and home minister Rao was out of the capital. The entire top rung of the government was away — and the leader lay dead.

ON THE flight, it was apparent Rajiv would be the next PM. Nobody quite said it — perhaps because nobody needed to say it or because nobody knew how to put it. Rajiv asked how a PM was chosen. Somebody said the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) had to be called, but this would require a few days in that era before email and cell phones. Another person suggested a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB), or those of its members who were in Delhi, could be called to take an emergency decision. Pranab pointed out there was also provision for an interim prime minister till the CPP formally elected the new leader — as had happened after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru and later Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Was he pushing his case or was he just offering theoretical options? In any case, if an interim PM had to be chosen at all, were Pranab’s credentials greater than Rao’s? It was probably an off-the-cuff remark but one has to allow for the context and suspicious atmosphere of the hour. Venkataraman, as vice-president, was actually asked by Arun Nehru, then Rajiv’s right-hand man in the Congress organisation, if he was ready to swear in Rajiv in case Zail Singh could not make it back to India before the day was out.

Was this concern for flight schedules or lack of clarity on how Zail Singh — whose candidacy for the presidency Rajiv and Arun Nehru had not been keen on — would respond? Nobody can be certain. Eventually, Arun Nehru met Zail Singh as the president landed at Palam. It was a short conversation. After asking about Indira, Zail Singh said, “Rajiv?” Arun Nehru nodded. That was that.

That evening, Rajiv was sworn in as prime minister with a small Cabinet. Pranab retained his job as finance minister. The chat on the flight back from Calcutta was the last thing on his mind — but evidently it had stayed with Rajiv.

Elections were called soon after. At the first CPB meeting after the poll dates were announced, Pranab made a suggestion: “Release names of 100 candidates — it will give the impression of confidence.” Rao agreed, but others were not so sure. After the meeting, Rajiv told a senior party colleague he didn’t like being “hustled”. Something was amiss.

By 1984, Pranab was the go-to man in the Indira Cabinet, responsible for carrying out the PM’s political decisions

Factional games had begun. ML Fotedar, who had been replaced as gatekeeper to Indira by RK Dhawan — a man close to Pranab — and Arjun Singh, leading an ambitious Thakur lobby, had begun a campaign to discredit Indira’s inner ring. Various theories were propounded — primarily that the Nehru-Gandhis must never trust fellow Brahmins. Pranab and Rao were Brahmins. The cases of Kamalapathi Tripathi, a Brahmin veteran from Varanasi, and of VC Shukla, Arjun’s rival from Madhya Pradesh, were cited. Indira had had problems with both.

Things came to such a head that Rao was told he could only contest from Hanamkonda (Andhra Pradesh), a seat he was certain to lose. It was after much persuasion that Rajiv gave him the second seat of Ramtek (Maharashtra), and in effect allowed him passage into the Lok Sabha. As for Pranab, his admittedly tentative suggestion he seek election from a Calcutta seat was brushed aside.

Rajiv and the Congress won a famous victory, but the factionalists got their way as well. Pranab was dropped as finance minister when the new Cabinet took charge on the final day of 1984. Perhaps his friendship with industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani — in those early months, Rajiv had a bit of a honeymoon with Nusli Wadia — was also responsible.

DESPITE BEING such a key pillar of Indira’s Cabinet, Pranab never served as minister under Rajiv, except for those two short months between 31 October and 31 December 1984. After the election, his job went to VP Singh.

In 1991, it was Pranab and Jairam Ramesh who gave Narasimha Rao tutorials on the state of the economy just before he became prime minister and Pranab expected to be made finance minister. Again, the job went to another man — Rao offered it to economist IG Patel before settling for Manmohan. Pranab was sent off as deputy chairman, Planning Commission. History was to repeat itself in 2004, when P Chidambaram got the finance minister’s post and Pranab was named as defence minister in Manmohan’s first Cabinet.

This sequence of events has been a sore point with Pranab, who feels his performance as finance minister in 1982-84 has never got its due. India took baby steps towards fiscal consolidation, deregulation and reform in that period, but those achievements, Pranab’s confidants say, have been eclipsed by the policy changes of 1991 and later. That is why he felt vindicated when Sonia acceded to his request after the 2009 election and gave him the finance ministry. It was the ministry he loved, coveted and felt was most suited to.

Paradoxically, in the past few months, many stakeholders in the economy have wondered if Pranab’s heart was still in the job. As the economy began to tumble, he displayed none of his political deftness — even letting an obstreperous revenue secretary make the retroactive tax and the General Anti-Avoidance Rules bigger controversies than he should have allowed.

Was he fed up because his warnings about runaway public spending, high subsidies and the licence-permit raj that some ministries had recreated had not been heeded? Was he following a scorched earth policy for a government that had used him without giving him what he felt was his appropriate reward? Was he was just tired?

Whatever it was, Pranab will have plenty of time to ponder the answer in the Palace on the Hill.

Ashok Malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka. 
ashok@tehelka.com

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