Between 2004 to 2012 when Pranab Mukherjee was union defence, external affairs and finance minister, there were at least a dozen occasions when had contemplated stepping down as a minister, reveals a book written by Mukherjee’s daughter Sharmishta. The book is based upon Mukherjee’s hand written diary entries and his conversation with Sharmishta who had a brief stint as a Congress politician.
“Pranab My Father – A daughter remembers’ [Rupa Publications India] makes numerous startling revelations. On 8 July 2009, a somewhat depressed Mukherjee wrote, ‘Some persons are spreading rumours that I am trying to overshadow the Prime Minister [Dr Manmohan Singh]. What can I do if this kind of wrong, malicious campaign is being built against me? The same game has been played again and again since ’80s. I’ve resigned to my fate.’
The book claims Mukherjee had offered to resign and retire when Manmohan, in a core group meeting in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, proposed to lower the age profile of both the Cabinet and party organization. The offer of his resignation and retirement was not taken seriously then. Pranab noted that Sonia had brushed it off.
On 1 December 2010, Mukherjee again acknowledged a ‘lack of warmth’ in his interactions with prime minister Manmohan Singh and contemplated stepping down. He wrote, ‘What I do not understand the reason behind it. (sic) Do they sincerely believe that I am a rival of Manmohan Singh? A few newspaper articles in my favour should not be taken as my plotting against anybody.’ The next day, Mukherjee, as per his diary entry, spoke to Sonia Gandhi and wrote, “I expressed my anguish and told her that from day one of UPA govt [that] I have expressed my unwillingness to remain in Cabinet. I feel I should quit now. Sonia ji told me that’s out of the question.”
Mukherjee, by his own admission, had felt slighted by Manmohan when he was kept out of a high-powered lunch hosted by the Prime minister in July 2009 for the visiting US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. As economic cooperation between the two countries was high on Hillary’s agenda, the decision to not invite the then Finance Minister raised many eyebrows. When Manmohan invited him for another dinner a month later, Mukherjee wrote, “‘My invitation is perhaps to make up for the adverse comments voiced in the media of my exclusion in PM’s lunch for USA Secy of State Hillary Clinton.’
Sharmishta however, insists that Mukherjee, who rose to become president of the republic and a recipient of Bharat Ratna by Narendra Modi government, had confided to her that he would have rather worked under Dr Singh than anyone else in the party. This was due to the respect and exemplary courtesy shown by Dr Singh to him. Mukherjee acknowledged it by saying, “I say this out of personal experience of the Prime Ministers I have worked with—Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao—I got the maximum autonomy when I worked with Manmohan Singh.’
Contrary to what many people believe, in Mukherjee’s assessment, Dr Singh was no weakling. “Going through Pranab’s diaries and from whatever conversation I have had with him, I felt that while Dr Singh might not have been as aggressive as Pranab in voicing his opinions, he definitely had views of his own and pushed them through whenever necessary,” observes Sharmishta who goes on to add, “I also read that Dr Singh shared with Pranab his unhappiness with some of his Cabinet colleagues, and occasionally even about the Congress President. Pranab’s general advice to him was to discuss these issues with the persons concerned and the Congress President ‘frankly and firmly’. On occasions, Dr Singh was even ready to quit and Sonia Gandhi had to pacify him.”
Mukherjee often acted as a peacemaker between Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi. Throughout the UPA years between 2004-2012, there were numerous instances of sparks flying, heated arguments and growing distances for a period.
Mukherjee’s diary observations about UPA-II offers an insight and his sense of despondency. Personally, he was getting tired both physically and mentally due to the overwhelming work demands and constant challenges encountered during the tenure of UPA-II. On 30 May 2010, Mukherjee noted, ‘Now a days I am feeling too tired. Foreign and domestic travels are becoming too exacting. I do not know for how long I shall have to carry this burden.’
This becomes a recurring theme coupled with a sense of dejection, as reflected in his diary entries. As early as 19 September 2010, a year after the formation of the UPA-II government under Manmohan, Mukherjee wrote, “I am worried over the situation prevailing in the political arena. I do not know how to run a government where nobody takes decisions and if somebody wants to do something, others resist and do not cooperate. There appears to be no cohesion in the functioning of the state.’
It is an open secret that UPA-II was plagued with inner tensions and faced a number of crises. It was blamed for having ‘policy paralysis’. Some of the key economic reforms measures that were expected to get through were stalled due to opposition from the BJP. The GST (goods and services tax) Bill could not be pushed through due to stiff opposition from the BJP. On 17 August 2010, he wrote, ‘At 1pm I met Sushma [Swaraj], Arun [Jaitley] and Yashwant Sinha. They agreed to support the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill but told me that on GST, they would not support it because of the CBI case against Modi govt in Gujarat.’
Rasheed Kidwai is an Indian journalist, author and political analyst.