Shortly after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot by her bodyguards in 1984, her son Rajiv wanted to know “how potent” the bullets were and if his mother deserved the violent death.
At the time, Rajiv was addressing a political rally in West Bengal along with senior party leaders, including Pranab Mukherjee, the then Union finance minister who received a wireless message relayed by the police: “Indira Gandhi assaulted. Return to Delhi immediately.”
He then cut short his speech and all of them rushed to catch a flight back to Delhi. On their way, they learnt on radio that “16 bullets had been pumped into Ms Gandhi,” prompting a distraught Rajiv to ask his personal security officer how lethal the bullets used by VIP security personnel are. The PSO replied they were very powerful, recalls Mukherjee.
“Rajiv then turned to us and, with great emotion, asked, ‘Did she deserve all these bullets?’ We simply sat there, stunned.”
These reminiscences form part of ‘The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996’, the second volume of President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoir, where he writes in detail on a wide range of controversial subjects, including the Operation Bluestar, his expulsion from the Congress and the demolition of Babri Masjid.
The book from Rupa Publications is to be released on Thursday.
The hours between Indira’s assassination and the naming of Rajiv as the next prime minister have often been the subject of intense political speculation, including suggestions that Mukherjee may have made a move for the coveted post.
But the president has sought to clear the air on this in his book.
“Immediately after take-off from Calcutta to New Delhi, Rajiv went into the cockpit. After some time, he came back and announced, ‘She is dead.’ There was absolute silence,” he writes.
After a while, Rajiv was asked by senior Congress leaders, including Mukherjee, railways minister ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury and Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar, to take over as the “full-fledged prime minister” instead of an interim arrangement.
Mukherjee took Rajiv, then 40, to the rear of the aircraft and informed him about their decision: “His immediate question to me was ‘Do you think I can manage?’” Mukherjee replied, “Yes, we are all there to help you. You will have everyone’s support.”
He writes that then cabinet secretary Krishnaswamy Rao had “counselled” him that he should have to take over just as Gulzari Lal Nanda had done twice in the past, as the senior most minister, after the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Mukherjee was the senior-most minister in Indira’s cabinet.
But, Mukherjee told Rao that Rajiv would be sworn in. He writes that it was he who drafted the letter to President Giani Zail Singh informing him about the decision of the Congress parliamentary board to elect Rajiv as leader of the party in Parliament and also requesting him to invite Rajiv to form the government.
“Many stories have been circulated that I aspired to be the interim Prime Minister, that I staked claim and had to be persuaded otherwise…Those stories are completely false and spiteful,” writes Mukherjee.
Those allegations cost Mukherjee his relationship with the Congress, forcing him out of the party in April 1986 when he formed his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress.
“Many of my actions, all without malice or ill-intent, were used by my detractors to project me as someone unwilling to accept Rajiv’s leadership… all I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I,” he writes.
“He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.”
Mukherjee returned to the party two years later and it emerged that Rajiv had never signed the letter of his expulsion.
Coming up later: Excerpts from the second volume of President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, where he shares an insider’s account of several significant events that took place during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.