We carry in this issue a chapter from President Pranab Mukherjee’s book The Turbulent Years. It is a vivid account of a significant downturn in the vicissitudes of his political journey which culminated in his occupying the highest and most exalted office in the land.
He recalls those events through a series of meetings he had with journalists at the time. Among those he cites includes one with me. He recalls: “In May 1986, I told Inderjit Badhwar of India Today: ‘I have been a proud Congressman… Nobody can take my contribution away… To those who think I have no power base, I can only say that I will remain an activist. I believe in the Congress’ ideology, and in whatever way I can, I will propagate that.’”
I remember it well. And I will narrate here the events which led to this meeting as well as what transpired because they continue to shed light on a bane that afflicts the political system in India: the lack of inner-party democracy within parties.
My meeting with Pranab Mukherjee was a longish interlude. It lasted about three-quarters of an hour. What led to it was the paranoid state of the ruling Congress Party under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv’s “coterie” as the politicians in his inner circle of advisors were called, had been filling their young leader’s ears with gossip that a subterranean cabal backed by former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and fronted by stalwart octogenarian Kamlapati Tripathi was conspiring to dethrone him and split the party.
Mukherjee, who had been one of Indira Gandhi’s most trusted lieutenants and a proud inheritor of Dr BC Roy’s colossal Congress role in West Bengal’s politics, had fallen from grace under the new dispensation led by Rajiv.
One reason was that Rajiv was led to believe that Mukherjee had fired the first shot against the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic tradition by staking claim to the prime minister’s post following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Mukherjee had already paid the price for that: Rajiv abruptly dropped him from his first cabinet after his landslide win in 1984 and then, from all important party posts.
His unpopularity with the coterie intensified following developments in the next two years. At the AICC session in Bombay in December 1985, Rajiv had made his famous fire and brimstone speech. He excoriated his own party for having become the prisoner of touts, power brokers, influence peddlers and money changers.
It signaled a purge. Congress backroom chatter was full of talk that Rajiv was on the warpath against “Indira loyalists”, and a situation was developing similar to the one in the late 1960s when Indira Gandhi split the party by ousting Morarji Desai’s “old guard”. The dissent within the Congress was palpable. The party’s poor performance in local body elections in 1986 gave Rajiv’s critics their chance to express themselves.
Rajiv was led to believe that Mukherjee had challenged the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic tradition by staking claim to the PM’s post after Indira’s assassination.
Rajiv received a flurry of letters questioning the government’s initiatives on various issues. I wrote at the time that they touched upon several genuine grievances—electoral reverses, national disintegration and lack of cohesiveness and the presence of “turncoats” (former anti-Indira politicians) in positions of power. Several Congressmen agreed on the turncoat issue—Rajiv’s pampering of politicians like Margaret Alva of the Congress (U) in 1979, Arif Mohammad Khan (Janata, 1978), Amarjeet Kaur (Janata, 1978) and KC Pant, Congress (S), 1977-79, who were abusive toward his mother or had hopped parties.
The most acerbic of them all, signed by Tripathi, accused Rajiv of having lost touch with partymen and surrounding himself with sycophants. Rajiv’s advisors, among them Arjun Singh, VP Singh, PV Narasimha Rao and Arun Singh, suspected Mukherjee of being the ghost writer. Rajiv retaliated without warning by expelling Mukherjee from the party at the end of April 1986. (He did not remove Tripathi but later had him trashed and humiliated at a Congress Working Committee meeting).
On that hot morning, I received a call from a reporter at India Today (I was then editing the magazine) that “Pranabda” had been expelled by Rajiv. They wanted to run an interview with him. As it turned out, Mukherjee was my neighbor in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-2. He lived in a modest bungalow. He did not appear to socialize much, and one hardly ever saw him. Those were not Z-security and NSG Black Cat days.
But on that particular day, there were an additional two policemen in the small contingent that guarded his house. I had earlier called his number to seek an appointment. His wife answered, put me on hold, and then asked me to come over. Mukherjee had agreed to speak to me notwithstanding the fact that he had been burned by an earlier press interview he had given to Pritish Nandy of The Illustrated Weekly.
After being cleared by the guards, I was greeted at the door by Mrs Mukherjee (she passed away in 2015) who introduced herself by her first name Suvra. She began to speak immediately of an explosion which had occurred in her home some days earlier as she led me to a small living room adjoining Mukherjee’s study. I reproduced that conversation in a report I filed for India Today:
“‘Strange things have been happening to us during the last few months,’ Shuvra Mukherjee, the former minister’s wife confessed. “But until this explosion, I did not think there was a pattern to any of it. I thought they were all unrelated incidents but now I’m beginning to get frightened.”
She said that she and her family—rather than Pranab Mukherjee directly—had been the targets of most of the harassment. ‘Someone is trying to get to Mr Mukherjee by frightening his family. I don’t know who these enemies are or what they want.’
“Shuvra revealed that she has also been receiving anonymous letters. ‘Most of these letters sound the same. They say things like, your husband knows too much. He has been talking too much. He is visiting West Bengal too much and should stay only in Delhi. We are going to make you a widow. We have been harassed before but never like this.’”
She then led me into Mukherjee’s study when he was ready to receive me. He was wearing a white kurta, smoking a pipe and poring over a newspaper. He nodded a greeting and I started our conversation by mentioning the explosion. He replied: “I am a political man and sometimes these things happen in politics. I am not scared for myself but my family is naturally worried. I do not know who is really responsible. All I can say is that the matter is now with the police and it is for the police to find out who is doing what.”
Pranab Mukherjee began chatting with me quite frankly about his expulsion from the Congress and much else which was off the record.
The former minister was not at home when the blast occurred at around 9.45 p.m. “We were sitting in the living-room, my children, and some friends, and chatting when we heard this loud noise,” said his wife. “We thought it had come from outside the house. We went out in the front and realised that it was in our own backyard, in the servant’s bathroom. There was a lot of smoke coming out. And the roof had been blown out. We had no police guard until this happened.”
Shuvra then told me that she now sees a possible connection between this incident and others that had happened previously. On January 21, she says, she had gone to visit an old friend in Ramakrishnapuram and parked her Maruti outside the house. When she came out of the house, she saw a fire burning underneath her car. After she raised an alarm, and the fire was doused, it turned out that the blaze had been caused by a cloth which had been soaked in kerosene and set afire underneath the car’s petrol tank.
“I thought this must have been an accident or the work of some crazy people.” she said. “But what was really strange was that within 20 minutes of this, about 20 close friends of mine in Delhi and Calcutta, including my brother and sister, received anonymous telephone calls saying my car had been blasted. How do they know my friends’ names and telephone numbers?”
“Most of these letters sound the same. They say things like, ‘your husband knows too much. He has been talking too much. He is visiting West Bengal too much and should stay only in Delhi. We are going to make you a widow.’ We have been harassed before but never like this.”
Her husband changed the subject. He began chatting with me quite frankly about his expulsion from the Congress and much else which was off the record. It was in this context that he told me what he has quoted in his book. The quote is accurate. His answer was in response to a direct question about his feeling of loyalty to Rajiv and his party.
In fact, he openly shared the contents of a letter he had written to Rajiv in which he had detailed electoral losses in mid-term polls and local body elections and asked the party to introspect.
“Is this an anti-party activity?” he asked with considerable emotion in his voice. Then he turned his face away from me, took off his glasses and began wiping them. When he turned towards me again, his eyes were brimming with tears. I recall him telling me even as his eyes welled: “I stuck with Mrs Gandhi through thick and thin. I was with her in all her moments of crisis…and now to be treated in this manner…”
The President went on to form his own regional party, with little or no political success before he was asked to rejoin the Congress a couple of years later. The rest is history.