NEW DELHI: “In 2004, when the coalition government was formed, Soniaji chose me to be Prime Minister. Pranabji had reasons to feel the grievance, he was better qualified…he was the most distinguished colleague that I had” — that was Manmohan Singh recounting his bit on how a ‘politician by choice’ and with long experience was pipped to the post by an ‘accidental politician’.
“Well, Pranabji knew I had no choice in the matter or any part in the decision,” Singh added, with a smile, drawing laughter not just from the audience, but also the other two players in that chapter of political history — Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee himself. The backers of the coalition seated on the stage — Sitaram Yechury, Sudhakar Reddy, who left the UPA mid-way, and those who continued in that embrace, Kanimozhi and Akhilesh Yadav — too joined in the loud laughter.
Rarely does a former prime minister break his silence in public, breaking the straitjacket of protocol to create a lighter moment out of a contentious moment in Congress politics. The surprise was heightened particularly because it was the usually taciturn Manmohan Singh. His disarming, self-deprecating humour comes on a sensitive subject that may be the focus of a book-based film next year.
That subject also promises to be one of the central revelations in Pranab’s political autobiography — ‘The Coalition Years’ (1996-2012) published by Rupa — that was released at Teen Murti Bhawan Friday. One way or the other, the palace intrigue that led to prime ministership slipping out of Mukherjee’s fingers is going to get much talked about in the coming days.
Especially his understanding with Sonia Gandhi that, in 2012, he would take over as the PM, lead the Congress to the polls in 2014 and Singh would be sent where Mukherjee himself finally went — Rashtrapati Bhawan as the 13th President of the Indian Republic. As the speakers, Yechury, Reddy, Kanimozhi and Akhilesh Yadav, talked in glowing terms about Mukherjee’s political astuteness, his elephantine memory, his ability to build consensus among disparate political groups in Parliament, the opposition leaders seemed to nudge each other for a need to build a similar coalition to face the current political situation.
If Yechury said he firmly believed that India is a socio-political-cultural and linguistic coalition and therefore best served through a coalition of parties, Akhilesh quipped disarmingly that Mukherjee’s autobiography could serve as a “textbook” for young politicians like him, who were looking towards putting together a larger coalition in the coming months and years. The chair reserved for BSP leader Satish Chandra Mishra — lying empty throughout the event — meanwhile seemed to indicate that coalition-making would be a far more arduous task for opposition leaders than it was between 1996 and 2012. Mukherjee himself said the shift from the Congress dominance of the polity to the coalition era was a watershed moment in the history of the nation.