If anyone wants a top-echelon insider’s take on parliamentary politics and how and why successive governments at the Centre did what they did — a rare behind-the-scenes peek into high statecraft — the book to pick up is ‘The Coalition Years 1996-2012’, the third volume of Pranab Mukherjee’s political autobiography.
For someone who began from a small regional party in Bengal and became both the eminence grise and unfulfilled star player of India’s Grand Old Party, and finally rose to be the 13th President of India in 2012, Mukherjee’s is more than a ringside view — it’s a tale about the cut-and-thrust politics of Delhi durbar, narrated from the gladiator’s own perspective. Thirty-seven years of rich first-hand experience, transformative for him as well as the nation.
He’s both a raconteur and a uniquely placed analyst. You get insights like why no ruling party can have simultaneous majority in both houses of Parliament without simultaneous elections. You also get the story of how he missed being prime minister or home minister. Mukherjee touches upon all transitional moments of the Congress journey from a party of internal coalitions to becoming the fulcrum of a multi-party coalition against its own grain.
It’s a tell-all memoir without slipping into a salacious vein. Mukherjee instead mines his memoirs to provide an analysis only his “elephantine” mind could give. “The memory of two elephants” is how Sonia Gandhi had laughingly described Mukherjee’s knack for remembering every detail.
“There was intense speculation…about her choice. Within the Congress party, the consensus was that the incumbent must be a political leader with experience in party affairs and administration. Finally, she (Sonia Gandhi) named Dr Manmohan Singh as her choice and he accepted,” Mukherjee recounts.
Many thought he “would not join the government because I could not work under Manmohan Singh, who had been my junior when I was the finance minister…. She (Sonia), however, insisted I should join the government also to support Dr Singh.”
Coming to pure politics, Mukherjee also gives a peek into the CWC meeting where Sonia was attacked on her foreign origin issue by the trio of P A Sangma, Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar, leading to the last major split in the party. Sangma had bluntly told Sonia, much to her shock: “We know very little about you, about your parents….” Mukherjee quotes.
What may provide more grist to the mill is Mukherjee’s account of how his intervention saved the Kanchi Shankaracharya from a prolonged stint in jail. He argued at the Cabinet meeting that if Indian secularism does not leave scope for the arrest of a Muslim cleric before Eid, the same should apply to Hindu clerics too. Supported by then NSA M K Narayanan, Shankaracharya’s bail was secured.
Admitting his tendency to flare-up — for which Sonia Gandhi once told him “this is why I think you can’t be the President” — Mukherjee writes: “Nothing exemplifies my temper more than the episode that involved the arrest of Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, on 12 November 2004. It was the time when the entire country was celebrating Diwali. During the Cabinet meeting, I was extremely critical of the timing of the arrest and questioned if the basic tenets of secularism of the Indian state machinery dare to arrest a Muslim cleric during Eid festivities? M K Narayanan, then Special Advisor to Prime Minister, also agreed with me. I immediately issued instructions for the Shankaracharya to be released on bail.”
On the governance and foreign policy issues that the memoirs touch upon, Mukherjee’s views on black money stands out since it’s being hotly debated: “The NDA government’s drives against black money and the subsequent demonetisation exercise to deal with this festering issue will have limited impact. These endeavours launched with great fanfare, just like L K Advani’s ‘Jan Chetna Yatra’ in 2011, will not be able to get to the root of the malaise…’
That’s as candid and diplomatic as one can get, while telling the current dispensation and whoever cares to listen, not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Well, a young politician heading a regional party quipped at Friday’s book launch, it’s a textbook on coalition, and they better learn from it!