President Pranab Mukherjee is a treasure trove of contemporary political history. The second part of his memoirs The Turbulent Years (1980-1996) was expected to uncover the country’s most turbulent phase wherein lies buried the secrets that shaped the future. He gives broad hints about them, but disappoints by concealing more than revealing.
He appreciates former prime minister Chandrashekhar candidly, but goes rather soft on Rajiv Gandhi who caused the former’s government to fall on a flimsy pretext. "Given a viable chance, he may well have proven himself as one of India’s best Prime Ministers,” he writes. Further, quoting Atal Behari Vajpayee, he mentions that Chandrashekhar was a “rebel at heart” whose understanding of the society and politics was excellent. For someone who is scarcely remembered for his four-month stint as prime minister, Chandrasekhar’s achievements were laudable indeed. Mukherjee could have thrown light on that.
As a journalist working with The Times of India’s Lucknow edition in 1991, I was at a loss deciphering the meaning of the slogan written all around the state: “chaalis saal banam chaar mahine (40 years versus 4 months)”. The slogan appeared to be the creation of an imaginative mind seeking to contrast Chandrashekhar with Rajiv Gandhi and it appeared to be lacking in substance. But people close to the former prime minister, known as ‘Adhyakshji’ among his followers, maintain this was never the case.
What the highly respected editor of Prabhat Khabar and Rajya Sabha member from Janata Dal (U), Harivansh, revealed to me, in this context, is startling indeed. According to him — Harivansh also served as additional information adviser to prime minister Chandrashekhar — the entire story of two constables snooping around Rajiv Gandhi’s house was concocted by the Congress to pre-empt Chandrashekhar from finding a solution to the Ayodhya dispute.
He had roped in his close friend Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Sharad Pawar to hold talks with the VHP and leaders of the Babri Masjid action committee. The resolution to the dispute was in sight after various rounds of secret negotiations, when the Congress suddenly pulled the rug from under Chandrashekhar’s feet, says Harivansh, who watched the events from close quarters.
In fact, a scrutiny of Chandrashekhar’s performance shows extraordinary feats achieved by him in those turbulent times. He took up the reins from VP Singh at a time when the country was highly polarised by Mandal-Mandir politics. He found economy in tatters and made a bold decision of mortgaging gold to fulfill India’s international debt obligation. “I know I have a cost to pay for this decision yet it is in national interest,” he told his confidants. Despite being in minority, he allowed refueling US planes during the Gulf war, much to the chagrin of the Congress leadership.
Harivansh pointed out that in his brief stint Chandrashekhar never tried to prevaricate, or compromised on decisions which he thought needed to be taken. For instance, he is believed to have held secret negotiations with Punjab terrorists sheltered in Pakistan in concert with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to end the impasse in Pakistan. "His own understanding of Punjab was phenomenal," says Harivansh, who subscribes to Mukherjee’s view that the dhoti-clad Chandrashekhar would have been outstanding prime minister had he been allowed to last longer.
“But that was not to be,” he says ruefully attributing it to “jealousies and conspiracies” that changed the course of the history.
The 186-page book chronicles political events that define the contours of Mukherjee’s political journey. His appreciation of Sanjay Gandhi’s leadership ability without any reference to his unsavory side is hardly surprising given the fact that Mukherjee was known to be a part of his cheer-leaders. But his justification of Sanjay Gandhi’s indiscretions — “every man has strength and weaknesses” — is nothing different from a movie-maker discovering virtues in social brigands.
As his wont, Mukherjee could not be harsh on anyone and was all praise for his leaders ranging from Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi. He is somewhat reticent and grudging when he deals with his another boss — former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In fact, what enhances the readability of Mukherjee’s book is the depiction of perpetual insecurity in which top Indian politicians live. Mukherjee was thrown out of the party and rehabilitated in the Congress on the whims of one individual — Rajiv Gandhi. He suffered silently his ignominious exit from the party where he was seen to be a rising star during Indira Gandhi’s term. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Narasimha Rao once again kept him out of the cabinet but posted him as deputy chairman of Planning Commission. Rao promised him to “tell all” one day about the reasons why he was kept out of the cabinet. Though Rao never revealed it, Mukherjee found his bearing after his re-induction as commerce minister, exactly eight years after he was removed as finance minister.
Mukherjee’s book belongs to the genre of memoirs written by leaders like K Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh or LK Advani. In all such books, the writer places himself at the centre, tries to explain his own position and rarely allows critical scrutiny of his ideology or himself. That is the precise reason why reading these refreshes memories but rarely enriches perspective. Thankfully, Mukherjee’s biography is a shade better than that of his contemporaries.