‘Politics is a game of public perception and my father felt that by his long disappearances, Rahul Gandhi was losing the battle of perception.’

Pranab Mukherjee’s mother Rajlakshmi Devi, an ardent fan of then prime minister Indira Gandhi had just one complaint to Congressmen in the 1960s — ‘Aamar chhele ta ke Indira Gandhi khatiye-khatiye roga kore dilo (My boy has become skin and bones toiling away for Indira Gandhi).’

In a political career spanning nearly 50 years, Pranab Mukherjee was an MP, defence and finance minister among other portfolios, leader of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission, President of India and of course, the man who couldn’t be prime minister — not once, but twice.

Mentored by Indira Gandhi, who once asked him to get a tutor to smoothen out his thick Bengali-accented English (he replied: ‘Madam, You can’t square the circle. I am who I am. You have to tolerate it’), Pranab went on to become easily the most powerful man in her Cabinet.

After political wilderness in the Rajiv Gandhi years, Pranab made a comeback under then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. There was no looking back thereafter and in 2012 he became India’s 13th President.

He was also an avid reader (the Constitution of India was leisure reading), nourished historical legacies (restored Edwina Mountbatten’s bed at Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the author of three books. He also wrote diaries — 51 volumes of them.

After his death in 2020, his daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Kathak dancer and a former Congress leader (who believes the Congress is her ‘Swadharma’, but that Congress doesn’t exist any more) trolled through these diaries to write his biography, Pranab, My Father. A Daughter Remembers.

Swaddled in an aquamarine shawl, Sharmistha talks about the book, reactions to it, and of course, her father, in a Zoom call from New Delhi with Rediff.com‘s Swarupa Dutt. The first of a two-part interview:

It was Pranab Mukherjee’s birthday on December 11. Did anyone in the Congress party get in touch with you on his birthday and over the book?

Well, Chidambaram-ji (P Chidambaram served with Pranab Mukherjee in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet) very graciously attended the launch function and I also received best wishes messages from the senior leaders. But in the Congress ecosystem and in the Congress social media accounts I am being trolled pretty viciously. No senior leader from the Congress officially has got in touch with me.

Why do you think you are being trolled? Pranab Mukherjee was a Congress MP for 37 years, a minister for 22 years and President of the country for five years.
Why is it that the party has in a sense shunned his memoirs? Is it the criticism of the party in the book?

I think that is an answer the Congress party, today’s party, needs to give. The Congress party is all about tolerance, about inclusivity. So what kind of tolerance is this?

A criticism of one of their leaders can create so much of negative feeling that they forget the contribution of one of their own leaders [Pranab Mukherjee] who served the party for 50 years? He was one of their main thinkers; was known as the fire-fighter, the problem solver of the party.

Today’s Congress, which accuses BJP of being intolerant, needs to introspect why criticism evokes so much of negativity.

Has any BJP leader reached out to you after the book?

Shri Vijay Goel [who served as a minister of state in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee ministry] came to the book launch function. I know him well personally and he had a very good relationship, like many leaders from across party lines, with my father, even in the post-Presidential years. He would visit my father sometimes at 10 Rajaji Marg [Pranab Mukherjee’s official residence after retiring as the President of India]. I’m junior to him, but he has always been kind to me.

But in terms of the BJP reaching out, and if your question implies whether the BJP wants me to join the party, and for which they’re reaching out — sorry, no. Because I think they are very well aware that no matter what, I am a hardcore Congressi, in terms of being a believer in the Congress ideology. So I don’t think they will make any attempt to try to reach out in that sense.

Pranab Mukherjee has described Rahul Gandhi as a very courteous man, full of questions. But he found him immature politically. Did his opinion change later on?

Not really. But when Rahul Gandhi adopted an aggressive stance on the Land Acquisition Bill, my father appreciated his speech in Parliament. And I have written about it in the book, but nobody’s talking about that.

But my father was disappointed by Rahul’s frequent disappearing acts after 2014. When the party is at such a low point, he goes abroad for long periods, or is absent from public politics.

Politics is a game of public perception and my father felt that by his long disappearances, Rahul Gandhi was losing the battle of perception.

When Rahul Gandhi tore up the ordinance to save convicted legislators from disqualification in 2013, Pranab Mukherjee writes that ‘he has all the arrogance of the Gandhi-Nehru lineage without their political acumen’.
So, the inference is that Pranab found Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi arrogant as well?

I think this is just a matter of expression. My father did not elaborate upon it, but as far as Indiraji is concerned, my father always said till the last day of his life almost, that whatever he was, wherever he has reached in life, was because of Indira Gandhi. It was because she mentored him.

My father’s personal loyalty towards any political leader, to be very honest, began and ended with Indira Gandhi. After that he served the Congress Party, but he did not serve any individual leaders.

My father always said that this [the Indira years] was the golden period of his life, when he was learning, applying, honing his political, diplomatic and administrative skills and all because of Indira Gandhi.

He said that Rahul lacks their acumen, but he also very clearly said that Indira and Rajiv had that acumen.

Rajiv Gandhi, and this has been said by many people, not my father, that initially when he became prime minister, lacked political maturity, but he was learning fast. My father always said that it was most unfortunate that Rajiv’s life was cut short, because he was truly a leader who could have led India to the 21st century.

He also mentioned in his diary that: ‘Soniaji is bent upon making her son successor but the young man’s lack of charisma and political understanding is creating a problem.’
Do you therefore feel that the BJP is right to be constantly harping about dynastic politics in the Congress?

My father towards the latter period of his life, in his post-Presidential years, when perhaps he had the time, maturity and experience, believed that the Gandhi family’s continuous hold over the party for so many years had created a personality cult and a culture of sycophancy.

I am being trolled today because of this sycophancy. It is because the leader is sacrosanct and nobody can say anything.

And this is when I’m not in politics. This is when my father is no more. In his political autobiographies, he did not say all this, only in his diary. So, what happened to freedom of expression?

Pranab felt that the continuous hold of one family in the Congress party slowly ended the democratic process of electing leaders within the party — starting from the booth level, block level worker — and was replaced by the nomination culture. He believed it ended the emergence of grassroot leaders at every level.

This process has taken place over many decades. It didn’t happen in a day. But you can see this process manifesting in the condition that the Congress is in today.

My father held himself responsible for this. He wrote that ‘The blind loyalty of people like me towards, first, Indira Gandhi and then Sonia Gandhi, perhaps that has led to the decline of the party’. He said we are accountable for this.

Did he feel he was in fact a sycophant?

My father never discussed with me if he thought he was a sycophant, but he believed the inevitability of a Gandhi-Nehru family to lead the party. And that was one of the reasons why he helped install Soniaji as the Congress president [1998]. It was he who found a clause in the Congress constitution on how to go about it.

But my father always spoke very strongly, firmly and frankly in party forums. He was never a ‘yes minister’. And that was perhaps the reason he was not made prime minister.

He spoke honestly and candidly whether it was through the CWC (Congress Working Committee) or in a private conversation with Sonia Gandhi or with Dr Manmohan Singh, but once a party decision was made, he would abide by it totally, even if went against his views.

He did not challenge the authority of the Nehru-Gandhi family, but he argued with them, he had heated exchange of words with them.

Perhaps that is why Sonia Gandhi did not make him prime minister, but it’s really a question only she can answer.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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