The Coalition Years 1996-2012: Pranab Mukherjee's political autobiography is a tell-all memoir that doesn’t slip into a salacious vein

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

Published: 15th October 2017 09:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th October 2017 09:09 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: 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.”

Beyond his own missed opportunities, natural turf for an autobiography, Mukherjee draws wider parallels like few others can. For instance, the fact that the Parliament impasse the Modi government faces — a Lok Sabha majority not being reflected in the Upper House — is not new. In the Rajya Sabha, Indira Gandhi faced the same degree of resistance in 1969-70, when she tried to abolish the privy purses.

“The Congress had majority in the Lok Sabha, but because of the split, it was reduced to a strength of 90-members in a House of 245. As a consequence, the Upper House started asserting itself against the government, rejected many important legislations and constitutional amendments in spite of the fact that they were supported in the Lok Sabha….the bill of 1970 which sought to abolish privy purses failed to get two-thirds majority in the Rajya Sabha by a fraction of votes.”

Mukherjee provides the prescription — one that seems to have some traction with the incumbent government. “It’s impossible to have a two-thirds majority, or even a simple majority, unless the ruling party wins” elections in six populated state-clusters: UP (undivided), Bihar (undivided), West Bengal, Maharashtra-Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (undivided).

Many of these states continue to be ruled by regional parties. Simultaneous elections, Mukherjee says, would be the option left for any of the two national parties to have an edge in the parliamentary numbers game.

It’s of course a view biased towards national parties — and there can be many views on whether it’s inherently democratic. But it gives a fascinating peek into the tactical thinking behind why the ruling dispensation would lean towards simultaneous polls.

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.

“Ahead of the 1999 elections, there seemed to be an all-out rebellion against the possibility that Sonia Gandhi might be the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate…. Sharad Pawar, as leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, expected the party to request him, instead of Sonia Gandhi, to stake claim to form the government…”

Mukherjee also seems to suggest that President Shankar Dayal Sharma may have erred in calling Atal Behari Vajpayee, the leader of the single largest party but short of simple majority, to form a government in 1996 that lasted 13 days. The President’s duty, he writes, is also to ascertain the “stability” of the government formation.

“Inviting the leader of the single largest (but still a minority) party in a divided House without ascertaining his support in Parliament was highly risky,” Mukherjee notes.
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.”

The inner workings of the government and the party come through another later episode, the 26/11 terror strike on Mumbai. At the CWC meeting called on November 29, “P Chidambaram was stridently vocal against Shivraj Patil and advised a change of the Home Minister. I tried to bring the sentiment down a bit by saying that we should not blame an individual; we all have our weaknesses. Throughout the discussion Shivraj Patil remained stoically silent.”

When Mukherjee got a call from the then PM on December 1, he noticed, “As I was driving in…Shivraj Patil was driving out, but at that time I had no inkling of what was to happen. As soon as I was ushered into Dr Singh’s office, he told me Shivraj Patil had resigned, and that Sonia Gandhi had suggested that I take over as Home Minister. He went on to say that he advised Ms Gandhi against this as I was handling a war-like situation as the External Affairs Minister and that the ministry could not afford the change at this time. Hence, it was decided P Chidambaram would replace Shivraj Patil.”

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!


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