Book Review | A career unimpeded by ideology & protected by Indira's blessing

Not that the future President of India waffled. He was vigorously involved on many fronts and always a vocal theorist

The leftist magazine that commented in January 1980 that socialism didn’t grow out of the pipe that Pranab Mukherjee, Indira Gandhi’s new commerce minister, smoked could not have had a clue about his true “ism” or, indeed, if he had one. No one did. No one does. Even readers who enjoy this very readable 379-page tribute by a devoted daughter cannot avoid musing on Talleyrand’s famous aphorism that “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts”.

Not that the future President of India waffled. He was vigorously involved on many fronts and always a vocal theorist. But his beliefs defied labels. Yet, it was because of his incisive thinking and lucid analysis of political events that I requested him to write the foreword for my book, Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India, an invitation that he graciously accepted. Mukherjee was external affairs minister at the time. Moreover, the book devoted considerable space to the interaction between Lee and Mrs Gandhi whose enormous impact on Mukherjee was no secret. “Throughout his long political career (and even later) he remained openly, unabashedly and unashamedly an Indira Gandhi loyalist,” admits his daughter, Sharmistha. Mrs Gandhi was the linchpin and raison d’etre of his political existence. No other “ism” was needed.

Not being committed to any ideology was an advantage. It enabled Mukherjee to assess events and individuals from a relatively independent standpoint. Some of these assessments are reflected in diary entries that are far from opaque. He even wondered in the privacy of those pages whether the “blind loyalty” of people like him was “responsible for mortgaging the party to the (Nehru-Gandhi) family”.

More such direct quotations from the 51 volumes of diaries that he bequeathed to his daughter (with instructions not to read them while he was living) would have been welcome. She also had access to other private papers and notes that must have been almost as revealing. However, those who interacted with Mukherjee during his career in politics may feel entitled to wonder whether the benign image projected in Pranab My Father accurately conveys the totality of his relations with two other key players, Manmohan Singh and, even more, the late Siddhartha Shankar Ray.

One is reminded of the perspicacious Peter Hazlehurst who covered the sub-continent for many years for The Times, London, writing when everyone was hysterically denouncing Mrs Gandhi’s alleged radicalism that she was only “slightly left of self-interest”. Mukherjee was her trusted chief steward.

One also misses the context of some developments. The pipe and socialism comment was made in light of Operation Forward, the codename for some cautious reforms that Mrs Gandhi had in mind, using Mukherjee and another relatively unknown politician, the industry minister, Charanjit Chanana, at least a decade before P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh took the country and world by storm with their liberalisation programme.

A minor blemish must also be noted. Just as Mukherjee was always the bridesmaid, never the bride, prime ministerial glory also evaded Britain’s Michael Foot whom the author elevates to the top job. Readers here may recall that Foot became notorious during the Emergency for reportedly welcoming Mrs Gandhi’s fiat as “a smack of firm government”. Did he really utter those words? “Where you got that from I don’t know but I said no such thing!” he snapped when I visited his small Hampstead house overflowing with books a decade later.

The volte-face (if it was that and not just misreporting) would not have surprised Mukherjee who commented on the number of people who claimed authorship of the Emergency when Mrs Gandhi’s sun was riding high but turned their coats when the Shah Commission began operations. Other diary entries are also enlightening. His explanation for avoiding a tete-a-tete with Baba Ramdev (“He would not have understood my Hindi, and I would not have understood his English”) was acute and humorous. His controversial valedictory address to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists in Nagpur for whom India was presumably an exclusively Hindu entity did not shrink from upholding secularism as an essential element of Indian nationalism. He could be devastating in demolishing pretensions, witness his dismissal of Rahul Gandhi for having “all the arrogance of the Gandhi-Nehru lineage without their political acumen.”

It was an enigmatic admission like his comment on a special AICC session in Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium in late 1998. “The whole session was ‘Sonia-Vandana’. Nobody can beat Congressmen/women in sycophancy. Except me, everyone took her name at least half a dozen times in a speech of five minutes.” Except me? If he was the exception there may have been reasons other than objectivity for it. His veneration for the boss lady did not extend to her elder son and his spouse although as long as Sanjay Gandhi was living, he was treated with the same deference.

Watching them, especially in the Willingdon Crescent phase when formal barriers were down to some extent, it was impossible not to wonder whether the king-to-be was being placated or the special relationship flaunted to impress humble mortals in the Congress durbar.

It would be a gross mistake to describe servility as a particular Congress failing. Monarchical authoritarianism is ingrained in the Indian’s psyche. An astute demagogue who “feels the pulse of the people very strongly” — Mukherjee’s description of Narendra Modi — revives political theatre by even dressing the part in flamboyant turbans, jewelled aigrettes, and flashy Jawahar coats (surely called something else now?) reminiscent of princely rulers.

Familiarity with the pulse of the people also prevents such tactical mistakes as expecting an unlettered peasantry to subordinate ancient tribal loyalties to modern notions of statecraft and exalt the bizarre imported philosophy of secularism above the sustaining faith of thousands of years that governs all aspects of daily life and is probably the nation’s strongest binding force.

Pranab Mukherjee — like Dr Karan Singh — to pick a name at random from the Congress leadership ranks — cannot have been altogether impervious to its nationalistic appeal. Unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party however, both mastered the ability not to allow private faith to shape public policy.

Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers

By Sharmistha Mukherjee


pp. 379; Rs 795

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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