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India: ‘Rahul can give new energy to party’

Former president Pranab Mukherjee opens up on his journey as congressman, Sonia and the party’s future

Image Credit: PTI
Pranab Mukherjee, as India’s President, atRashtrapati Bhavan in 2015.
Gulf News

It was late in the evening. The air inside the bungalow at 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi, was heavy with shock and grief. October 31, 1984. India’s then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s bullet-riddled mortal remains were still lying at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for routine procedure. Earlier that day, two of Indira’s personal bodyguards had showered her with bullets from a .38 Special revolver and a Sterling submachine gun, throwing the Gandhi family into trauma and the world’s largest democracy into an unprecedented spiral of violence and political uncertainty.

Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at All India congress committee session in Calcutta on December 28, 1983.

Indira’s elder son Rajiv, then a Congress party general secretary, had rushed back from his tour of West Bengal later that afternoon. As a shell-shocked Rajiv stood by, with wife Sonia literally clinging on to him – still in disbelief, after having witnessed the morning mayhem first-hand — it took decades of political guile and nerves of steel for one man to pull Rajiv aside and ‘break’ the news. “The Congress Working Committee [the highest decision-making unit of the party] unanimously wants you to step in as prime minister. The nation’s safety and security are at stake …” Pranab Mukherjee reportedly told a distraught Rajiv at the Gandhis’ Safdarjung Road residence.

That evening, Pranab babu was perhaps the only person who could have goaded Rajiv into biting the bullet. The Congress working committee had turned to Indira’s most trusted party colleague and the then Union finance minister, a virtual No 2 in the Cabinet, to take Rajiv into confidence. And Mukherjee had delivered, without batting an eyelid, so to speak – knowing full well that by convincing Rajiv to walk into Indira’s shoes, he was probably driving a nail into the coffin of his own political ambitions!

Just two months later, as Rajiv pencilled in the names of his Cabinet members, after a landslide victory in the 1984 general elections, Mukherjee did not even figure on the roll of honour!

Mukherjee fell out with Rajiv big time. He was ejected from the party. Bereft of the Congress trappings, Mukherjee formed Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress to keep the political fire within him burning. And it took him almost five years to mend fences with the Gandhis, making a comeback to the Congress fold in 1989. Even after Rajiv’s death, Mukherjee’s vibes with the Gandhi household remained cold. But things started changing for the better with the Congress Conclave in Panchmarhi, Madhya Pradesh, in 1998. Soon, with Sonia at the helm, Mukherjee went from strength to strength, gradually winning the party president’s trust and eventually emerging as her most trusted go-to man for untying many a Gordian knot that the party often found itself in. Nominating him as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance candidate for the President of India in 2012 being the biggest acknowledgement of Sonia’s gratitude towards the Bengali doyen.

Even after moving out of Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace in New Delhi), Mukherjee’s stately persona, commitment to his ideological moorings and his universal acceptability among diverse political groups are qualities that are worth their weight in gold in the rough and tumble of multi-party democracy that India is, where propriety and decorum are often sacrificed at the altar of political one-upmanship.

Gulf News caught up with the octogenarian for an exclusive chat, even as the Congress party saw a change of guard with Sonia passing on the mantle to son Rahul as the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi scion to lead the 132-year-old behemoth. Pranab babu had seen Sonia and Rahul from very close quarters for decades and what better person than him to comment on the longest-serving Congress president and the ushering in of a new era under a new party chief. Following are excerpts …


GULF NEWS: What do you think was the biggest source of strength for Sonia Gandhi, that helped her retain the Congress president’s post for two decades without much dissidence?

PRANAB MUKHERJEE: Sonia Gandhi’s biggest strength as Congress president was her totally non-partisan approach to solve the problems within the party at different levels. She was invited to be the Congress president by almost all senior leaders at the time (1998) as Congress had faced reverses in the 1996, 1998 and the 1999 general elections. Her acceptability as Congress president was overwhelming. A clear understanding of the problem and a sincere effort to solve it strengthened her stature within the party.

For a rank outsider, with no formal training in politics — and who was not at all aware of the machinations of Indian politics in particular — how did she manage to successfully guide two Congress-led coalition governments at the Centre?

No doubt, she was an outsider and was not involved in politics of the Congress party or of the country. She politely declined to be the Congress president when the Congress Working Committee offered her the post after the assassination of [her husband and then party president] Rajiv Gandhi. She had confined herself to her house for seven long years after Rajivji’s death and watched the situation. She herself said in her speech on December 16, 2017: “Only when I came to feel that Congress was facing a crisis, and that communal forces were gaining strength, did I feel compelled to respond to the call of the party workers. I felt that my turning away from this summons would negate the sacrifice of my mother-in-law’s life and my husband’s life. So, I entered politics — to fulfil a duty to my family, party and country.”

After your Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress party merged with Congress in 1989 and you returned to the Congress fold, Sonia’s trust in you grew in leaps and bounds over the years that followed. Why do you think she trusted you so much?

After the brain-storming session of Congress leaders at the Panchmarhi Conclave in 1998, Mrs Gandhi’s level of confidence in me rose rapidly. Before that, I did not have much interaction with her on political issues, though occasionally, I would meet her at her residence and inquire about her well-being. Perhaps because of my commitment and dedication towards work, Sonia Gandhi’s trust in me began to grow and I considered myself as one of her trusted colleagues.

You were her go-to person, the most-trusted crisis manager, for years. Yet, she preferred Dr Manmohan Singh over you for the prime minister’s post in 2004. Why do you think this happened?

Her selection of Dr Manmohan Singh and recommendation of his name as the leader of the Congress parliamentary party in 2004, to lead the government as the prime minister, was the right and perhaps the best choice at that point of time. Dr Singh had all the qualifications to be the prime minister. An erudite scholar, an eminent economist of international repute, Dr Singh had the experience of being a very successful finance minister of India for full five years and was serving as the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha [Upper House of parliament] from 1998 to 2004. His honesty and integrity were beyond question. His non-partisan approach to various issues enhanced his acceptability as the leader. I consider Mrs Gandhi’s decision to be perfectly correct.

Do you think Rahul Gandhi’s appointment as Congress president has happened at the right time or could this have been done earlier?

Rahul Gandhi has taken over as Congress president at the right moment. There are many challenges before the Congress, but there are equal number of opportunities. Rahul as the next-generation leader has shown a remarkable ability to learn and grow. Congress needs new energy and drive, which Rahul and his team are fully capable of providing. Before becoming Congress president, he had the experience of being a member of parliament (Lok Sabha or Lower House of the parliament) for 13 years. He has served as the in-charge of the party’s students’ and youth wings, as party vice-president and now he is the president of the Indian National Congress. Since 2004, he has been the face of the Congress campaign in all elections. Therefore, I feel it was the right moment to elect him as Congress president.

Why do you think Sonia Gandhi did not want to have Rahul as the next prime minister after Congress won more than 200 seats in Lok Sabha in 2009?

In 2009, Soniaji had publicly declared that if Congress came to power, Dr Manmohan Singh would continue to be the prime minister of the country and people accepted this and gave more than 200 seats to Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Sonia Gandhi has very successfully blunted the most potent ‘weapon’ that the opposition had against her: Her foreign origin. How did she make this possible?

She won the hearts of the Indian people by her sacrifice, by declining to accept the office of the prime minister in 2004. Though both the party and alliance leaders strongly wanted her to assume that office, she stuck to her decision not to assume the prime minister’s office.

Given a choice as an ordinary Indian voter, whom would you have preferred as a prime minister: Sonia or Rahul?

It is a hypothetical question.


Quick and quirky

Who is Pranab Mukherjee?

Humble beginnings, meteoric rise 

  1. Former PM Indira Gandhi had once suggested that Pranab Mukherjee hire a tutor to improve on his English pronunciation. 
  2. A Dunhill pipe was his trademark for several years, before he quit smoking.
  3. Holds a Master’s degree in History and Political Science and an LLB from University of Calcutta. He worked as an upper division clerk in the office of the Deputy Accountant General (Post and Telegraph) in Kolkata. 
  4. Before joining politics, he had worked as a journalist with Bengali daily Desher Dak. He had also had a stint as an assistant professor in Political Science with Vidyanagar College in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal.
  5. Performs all the rituals associated with the Hindu festival of Durga Puja at his ancestral home in Mirati, West Bengal, every year.
  6. Though he joined politics in 1969, he had his first major election victory only in 2004 — winning the Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency for Congress.   
  7. The only politician in India to have handled the key portfolios of Defence, Finance, Foreign and Commerce in the Union Cabinet.
  8. In 1984, Euromoney magazine voted him the Best Finance Minister in the world.
  9. He has been maintaining a diary on his personal life, for each day of his life, for the last 40 years, which will be published posthumously.
  10. Had a miraculous escape from a major road accident in West Bengal in April, 2007, while he was the Defence Minister.

Who is Sonia Gandhi? 

Devoted wife, reluctant politician

  1. The former president of Congress party and widow of assassinated Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonai is extremely fond of handloom saris. The pink sari she wore on her wedding day was the one that her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi had worn on her wedding as well, gifted to Indira by her father Jawaharlal Nehru. 
  2. Sonia met Rajiv for the first time at a Greek restaurant while both were students at Cambridge University. It was Indira Gandhi who insisted that Sonia visit India once before making up her mind on marriage.
  3. When she came to India for her marriage to Rajiv in 1968, she was a guest at the Amitabh Bachchan household in Delhi for a few days.
  4. She has done a professional course on art restoration from the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
  5. While she was still new in Delhi, Sonia would be seen riding with Rajiv on his Lambretta scooter, for a Sunday afternoon ice-cream treat at India Gate. Pasta made by her was a personal favourite of mother-in-law Indira. 
  6. She is proficient in nine languages, including French and German.
  7. Novels by Indian author Munshi Premchand are among her favourites.