The history of Pranab Mukherjee’s five-decade public life tells you no one who dared to engage him in an argument has won, and not just because he would never concede one. His knowledge of political history and evolution, nuances of the Constitution, and that wonderful thing in governance, ‘the precedent’, is phenomenal. It is matched only by the network and goodwill he has built through these decades. I am fully conscious of this while picking up an argument with his latest book, ‘The Coalition Years’, published this month to mostly superlative reviews.
The most important thing about his series of political memoirs is that these got written. It may be part of the great democratic tradition around the world – Barack Obama being the latest on the list – but in India, it was never born. Nehru, our most literary leader, did his writing before coming to power and died in harness. No top leader has put pen to paper since, except PV Narasimha Rao and IK Gujral.
Some were not left time and energy by their advancing years, some didn’t just have the scholarship, notes, or even a story to tell. One that has all three attributes, Dr Manmohan Singh, seems too cautious to go there — at least yet. You’d also believe that too many of our public figures are shy of saying something substantive because they still have their horses in the race, mostly their offspring, in a dynastic profession.
It is credible, therefore, that Mukherjee, or Pranabda, or simply Dada, has produced this body of work, three full volumes and a fourth on his presidential years expected next. These are invaluable in simply documenting our political history, especially since end-1984 (Indira Gandhi’s assassination) when our politics started opening up.
Since he is meticulous with his chronology and references as only Pranabda can be, these are invaluable to anybody with a stake in Indian politics and governance. But these are fatally flawed in concealing more than they reveal, and talking too often in bureaucratic cipher, cryptography, and semaphore, rather than explaining some crucial turning points in detail.
It was understandable in the first two volumes. These were published while he was still in Rashtrapati Bhawan. The norms or maryada of that high ceremonial office was justification enough to either avoid some sensitive issues or hint between the lines. A good example is the characteristic and brilliant subtlety with which he described the skulduggery leading to the choice of Rajiv over him to succeed Indira. In this third volume, this excuse wasn’t available.
But that is only the first and the gentler of our quibbles. The larger and tougher point is how he has used his latest book for self-justification on too many contentious issues and decisions in the UPA decade, and also blaming some of his peers by innuendo. We would have expected greater clarity and candour from him. I say it with trepidation, having held him in awe for his knowledge and admired his strength.
Here is my chosen listing of the turning points involving Pranabda in the UPA’s 10 years that we would have loved more clarity on: Why Sonia preferred Manmohan to him and how did he cope? Why he denied finance first up, why did he accept it five years later, and why did he make such a mess of it? How did he out-maneuver Sonia Gandhi and leave her with no choice but to nominate him for the presidency which she would have preferred to give to Hamid Ansari? And how does he justify leaving that most toxic legacy in the finance ministry, of the (Vodafone) retrospective tax amendment?
He does address each one of these but mostly skirts around them. He claims he had told Sonia in 2004 he didn’t want the finance ministry. Then why did he accept it in 2009? Especially since his reason for ruling it out in 2004 was that ‘Manmohan Singh and I held differing views on economic issues’.
Some of his most substantive statements in the book pertain to how his economic outlook was very different from Manmohan Singh’s and even more so, P Chidambaram’s. He is at his most candid, even cutting, in the short section on Chidambaram, detailing how he differed with him on the economy.
“While I was conservative and believed in reforms as a continuous process and favoured an inclusive and gradual transformation of the economy — a controlled regime. He is a pro-liberalisation and pro-market economist.” A ‘good example’ of this contradiction, he says, is his retrospective tax amendment in the Vodafone case. Elsewhere, he takes Chidambaram apart for earning fame for his 1997 ‘dream’ budget, but getting his numbers all wrong.
Pranab Mukherjee pre-emptively refused finance in 2004 because he fundamentally disagreed with Manmohan, as with Chidambaram. And yet, five years later, happily (there is no hint of reluctance in his account), accepted the same ministry, succeeding Chidambaram. This is troublesome. Because his stint in finance was a disaster, growth stalled, then declined and hasn’t really recovered since.
All the new initiatives he started or pursued (FSDC, FSLRC, DTC, government debt management office) remained incomplete. He makes no secret of the fact that his disagreements with the then RBI governor D Subbarao, who ‘had been thrust upon me’, were sharp and charges him with having an exaggerated view of his autonomy.
It is evident that he wanted to create a super-regulator in the finance ministry and thus, change the power balance in India’s monetary and economic regulatory institutions that Manmohan Singh disagreed with (Pranabda’s account). Yet, he persisted, and any surprise then, that his failure in all these pursuits was spectacular.
He avoids talking about key events in this period. The most important is the scams and the goings-on between his office and the prime minister’s over the 2G scam. I do not believe he does himself service by writing a 278-page book without mentioning the name of Baba Ramdev when his biggest misstep as finance minister was going to Delhi airport to meet him, other cabinet colleagues in attendance, on the black money issue. It was among the biggest humiliations for the UPA in that phase. On this, he can’t even blame Manmohan or Chidambaram.
A inside-out reading of his account would give a contrary picture of his political career, which on the surface was a brilliant success. He has been denied what he sees as his due too many times. Prime ministership by the Gandhi family’s inside-operators after Indira’s assassination, again in 2004 by Sonia, who didn’t trust him with the home ministry which he would have preferred. Then, the presidency in 2007 and almost again in 2012 when he pulled out all his guile and goodwill to leave her no choice.
He doesn’t say any of this clearly, but there is the odd hidden gem that tells us Dada is also human. Like his walking away from a meeting with Sonia on 2 June 2012 with the ‘vague impression’ that she would elevate Manmohan Singh to Rashtrapati Bhawan and make him prime minister instead. Because ‘I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday’. And then Sonia turned the knife further by telling him, after he had admonished Sushma Swaraj into restoring sanity in the Lok Sabha, “This is why you can’t be president”.
There are other nuggets buried here and there. MJ Akbar, he says, was ‘working hard to further the cause of my presidential nomination’ (in the BJP, of course). He came to meet Pranabda on 27 May 2012, told him about his informal discussions with LK Advani and Jaswant Singh, and ‘insisted that both of them were supportive’.
Nobody knows if he shared with his party that he was engaging and lobbying with the BJP for support. How they would have reacted, you can guess. Pranabda tells us later how Sonia got mad with him for meeting Balasaheb Thackeray to thank him for his support despite her disapproval. Since Pranabda’s tone is so consistently preachy and he says repeatedly that he is an ‘organisation man’, it is fair to ask if all this was fully Congress-like in 2012.
His longest lasting and unfortunately negative legacy is the retrospective tax amendment which he persisted with, despite persuasion from Manmohan Singh, Sonia, Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, as he says. He also says that a senior ‘colleague’ came to his house with a top Vodafone official but again, doesn’t tell us who, so we can find our usual suspect through his innuendo.
He takes pride in the fact in the past five years no finance minister has been able to repeal it. But none has gone ahead to recover the money too, and Vodafone is pretty much on its way out of India in disgust.
So everybody’s the loser, except the cause of bad old statism. But didn’t he tell us early enough that he preferred a ‘controlled regime’! Why did he have to recreate one under the prime minister who had dismantled it in 1991, we will need a less partisan biographer to find out.