Insider’s Narrative

703This memoir of Pranab Mukherjee, third of the trilogy, is a detailed and frank narrative about the clandestine orchestration in the government and the Congress party during 1996-2012. Mukherjee, the veteran insider, was once described by a magazine as ‘the man who knew too much’ and in this part he spews his knowledge and experiences in the corridors of power covering the period of 1996-2012, just before his ascendancy as the 13th President of the Republic of India. It gives a vivid account of his role in the party and the government and the trajectory of the Congress party since 1996 which he considers a threshold period marking the advent of coalition politics in India.

In the introductory chapter, he warns against disturbing trends in today’s politics, such as the declining time in Parliament devoted to debate, and legislation passed without proper discussion. He says that effective parliamentary democracy relies on 3Ds – Debate, Dissent and Decision. However, disruption has taken over the system, negating the very purpose of a Parliament. He is also concerned about the tendency to pass ordinances ignoring the Parliament.

The author is critical of the period of Emergency when he says that “self-correction in such situations is always a better option than self-justification”. But as a matter of fact, he took a principled stand and refused to give evidence when he was summoned by the Shah Commission which was investigating the alleged excesses of the Emergency.

In the Chapter ‘The Congress after Rajiv’, he shares the reasons for the decline of the Congress in the 1990s, viz. the economic reforms which largely affected the elite, and the potential benefits which were yet to percolate to the masses. This led to the rise of the BJP in the 1990s as an alternate to the Congress. It also coincided with another significant development across the nation’s political landscape – the formation of alliances by smaller parties to constitute a bulwark against the Congress.

Because of his long experience and knowledge of both the government and the party, his services were often sought by the Congress for crisis management. The case of SitaramKesri who refused to step down as the Congress president in 1998 is an instance. Through his astute handling of issues he brought the party out of this fix and ultimately Kesrihad to face an unceremonious ouster as the party president, paving way for Sonia Gandhi.The book succinctly brings forth the episode of SharadPawar’s failed venture to be the PM as well. While describing SitaramKesri’s election and ouster as Congress president, Mukherjee traces the party’s history and says, “Certain offices should not be sought; rather they should be offered. I consider Congress presidency to be one such office.”

Talking of the 1999 elections, he brings forth the differences he had with Sonia Gandhi on several occasions and issues, viz. the way Congress should function as the Opposition party in both the Houses. He says that, “While she and the Congress members in the Lok Sabha took the obstructionist path, Singh and I held a differing view. We felt that conciliation and engagement would work better”. However, he maintains that “her detachment and her decision of not being aligned with anybody in particular is her greatest strength”.

In the Chapter ‘2004’, he brings forth the changing political landscape in the country which was clearly visible in the party’s change of stand from the Pachmarhi Conclave where “we had agreed that ‘Coalitions will be considered where absolutely necessary’.” As a result, before the 2004 elections, Sonia Gandhi had come to the conclusion that pursuing alliances was the only option left.

He also raises the pertinent issue of budgetary allocations to the Defence and says that “sporadic bursts of sharp increase in the aftermath of crises did not serve the real security needs of the nation.” He also favours the building of a credible arsenal. He has also written about his endeavours in the clearance of the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement and has lauded the Congress for the NREGA, the UID Mission and the Food Security Bill. 

The author admits that he was reluctant to work under Singh, who had been his junior when he was the finance minister. He has clearly shown his disappointment at not having been called upon to head a government in spite of his vast knowledge and experience in administration and party affairs. However, he writes about Manmohan Singh in good light to the extent that he says, “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.”Whenever Dr Singh was not in New Delhi, Mukherjee chaired the Cabinet. It was, thus, not unusual on his part to think of being the PM candidate in 2012. He has openly vented his emotions in the book. Moreover, Sonia Gandhi had reservations about Mukherjee as a Congress candidate in 2007 and 2012 presidential elections as well. The reason she cited for her reluctance, against the general consensus on his name, was that there was no substitute for Mukherjee as leader in the Lok Sabha and that no one else was as knowledgeable about party affairs as him. But finally she agreed to his name only after Mamta Banerjee spoke out vehemently against Mukherjee’s candidature. 

That he often lost his cool is reflected by an instance when he writes that at one stage he asked all officials to leave the cabinet room. He then yelled at his ministerial colleagues that, in his long experience, he had never seen such cabinet meetings where endless discussions led to no decision. Some shocked allies threatened that the UPA government could collapse as they would not accept dictatorship.In another incident, he was angry at the arrest of Kanchi Shankaracharya just before Diwali and considered it insensitive to Hindu sentiments. 

On the question of war against black money, he says that, “I have always believed that we must work with individual countries to recover the unaccounted wealth stashed away in their banks.” At the same time, he was also unwilling to be a part of any committee on Lokpal because he did not view it as a solution to the festering issue of corruption.

In this memoir, the author has narrated many engaging and riveting events and accounts of his personal experiences in the corridors of power. In general, the book provides a comprehensive picture of the last part of his journey in the day-to-day affairs of the government and the Congress party. His journey is, in itself, a benchmark and noteworthy sojourn. Though he has glorified all the accolades of his government but remains reticent on the scams that took place during the UPA-I and UPA-II regimes.

(The reviewer is a social commentator)


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