For the regular political hack in Delhi, Pranab Mukherjee was the repository of all relevant information. His addas were where you got real insights as also little titbits that could be peddled in the diary columns. But the flow of information would always stop at a certain point where he would stash away the secrets for his personal diary. This diarist kept his secrets, not allowing anyone to sneak a peek while he lived.
But since he passed, Sharmistha Mukherjee has delved into this veritable treasure trove of insights into contemporary politics. There are details on everything ranging from how Sonia Gandhi kept pushing Rahul Gandhi to take over the Congress, to Pranab’s belief that Narendra Modi is the only Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi to have “the pulse of the people”.
Sharmistha’s book, based on her father’s diaries, is as much a fond memoir of a daughter as a deep dive into the politics of our times where, occasionally, trivia dribbles into the pages alongside fascinating details about crucial events. There’s description of a dinner for the then US President Barack Obama hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a meeting that Obama has famously mentioned in his book The Promised Land. While Obama thought Rahul Gandhi had his mother’s “good looks”, Pranab too was struck by his leader’s appearance on that particular occasion. “Soniaji was looking really beautiful with her light make-up and select jewellery,” he noted in his diary.
Sonia’s rather complicated relationship with the party veteran is chronicled in delightful detail by his daughter. Sonia did not trust Pranab enough for the Prime Minister’s post, but valued his contribution in policy-making as also party affairs. She humoured him, tolerating his temper tantrums and sought his advice. Pranab knew he was being humoured, but was a willing participant in this gamesmanship. She knew what he really wanted was to be PM, but would be a better candidate to be President. The nuances of this relationship are duly recorded.
On April 3, 2012, Sonia showered Pranab with praises, a fact that he warily noted, “She was very warm and positive. She said that I am aware of the heavy burden you are carrying, but I have no one like you with such vast experience in politics, economics and diplomacy and moreover, the respect you command with all parties is unique…” But the “high praise” by Sonia was “usually followed by withholding of something”. Events led Pranab also to hope that if Manmohan Singh is considered as President, he still had a chance at becoming PM, a job he so fervently coveted. “...I returned with a vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the Prime Minister,” Sharmistha quotes Pranab.
Pranab’s diaries also confirm a fact that we, as reporters covering the BJP at the time, had heard from Arun Jaitley who went on to become Finance Minister and spearheaded the passage of the historic Goods and Services Tax. It was that the BJP did not allow the passage of the GST during the UPA’s time because of the CBI investigations into the Gujarat riots and the role of the government headed by Narendra Modi. The book reproduces an excerpt from Pranab’s diaries on August 17, 2010: “At 1 p.m., I met Sushma (Swaraj), Arun (Jaitley) and Yashwant Sinha. They agreed to support the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill but told me that on GST, they would not support because of the CBI case against the Modi government in Gujarat.”
The book is instructive in decoding the seemingly unfathomable crests and troughs of political life in India. Mamata Banerjee, who has just wrecked the Opposition’s INDIA alliance by deciding to go solo in West Bengal, has been characterised as a trouble-maker by the Congress veteran in his diaries. He describes how she, as Railway Minister, announced a 75-day productivity-linked bonus to railway workers without taking prior approval from the Cabinet. Then again, he noted, “Mamata created another problem. She wants to place on the table of the House a white paper on railway and a vision document. These documents haven’t been seen by anybody – neither Cabinet nor PM. When I suggested to her to show it to PM, she grumbled and protested.”
Pranab thought very little of Rahul Gandhi and his diaries are even more scathing. Sharmistha is unsparing in her reproduction. Here’s a detail from just after the Congress’s humiliating defeat in 2014: “He gave his views on the election performance of the party in a most detached way, from a distance as an outsider as if he was not the face of the campaign and the main campaigner of the party… Perhaps his distance from the party and a lack of killer instinct could be the reasons for his failure to enthuse the party workers to fight the election, which the BJP got from Narendra Modi.” A few months later, another entry in the diary, “As he got everything so easily, he does not value it. Soniaji is bent upon making her son the successor but the young man’s lack of charisma and political understanding is creating a problem. Can he revive the Congress? Can he inspire people? I do not know.”
Indeed, there is a question mark about a leader who has presided over two successive defeats of a party and still continues to lead. At the same time, high praise is reserved for Narendra Modi. His impressions of the PM: “He has clarity in his thoughts and has a professional approach to statecraft. He feels the pulse of the people very strongly. He wants to learn and does not pretend he is ‘Mr Know-All’. As a hardcore RSS man, he is fiercely patriotic and nationalist.” Sharmistha later quotes Pranab as saying that “Narendra Modi is the only PM after Indira Gandhi who has the ability to feel the pulse of the people so acutely and accurately.”
Pranab Mukherjee’s private ruminations have come to haunt the Congress in the run-up to the general elections. Perhaps the veteran was more troubled than he let on about not having been chosen to be PM.
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