Rajiv let others influence him and listened to their calumnies: Pranab

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan TImes, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 28, 2016 14:54 IST
The hours between Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the naming of Rajiv Gandhi as the next prime minister have often been the subject of intense political speculation, including suggestions that Pranab Mukherjee may have made a move for the coveted post. (HT File Photo)

Allegations that Pranab Mukherjee aspired to be the prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and had to be persuaded otherwise cost him his relationship with the Congress, forcing him out of the party in April 1986 when he formed his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress.

Mukherjee returned to the party two years later and it emerged that Rajiv Gandhi had never signed the letter of his expulsion.

In the second volume of his memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, Mukherjee shares an insider’s account of several significant events during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Here is an excerpt on his expulsion from the Congress:

The results to the 1984 Lok Sabha elections were declared on 24 December 1984. The Congress swept the polls, winning 404 seats out of 514. While the BJP got only 2 seats. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) got 30 seats, the CPI(M) 22, the AIADMK 12 and the Janata Party 10 seats.

On the morning of 31 December 1984, Rajiv was elected as leader of the CPP at 11 a.m. in a meeting held in the Central Hall of Parliament. l chaired the meeting and stood next to him when he announced to the media that the swearing-in would be held at 3 p.m. Even then I was clueless about the manner in which the day would unfold.

I kept waiting for the call. Being dropped from Rajiv’s Cabinet was not even peripherally in my mind. I had heard no rumours, nor had anyone in the party ever vaguely hinted at it. As it happened, P.V. Narasimha Rao, too, was on tenterhooks, calling me several times to check if I had received a call.

When I learnt of my ouster from the Cabinet, I was shell— shocked and flabbergasted. I could not believe it. But I composed myself, and sat alongside my wife as she watched the swearing—in ceremony on television. As soon as it concluded, I wrote to the Ministry of Urban Development asking to be allotted a smaller house in place of my 2 Jantar Mantar residence (which was a ministerial allocation), pointing out that I had ceased to be a minister——this was something I had done in 1977, too. I then went off on a holiday with my family who had long suffered my neglect.

All India Congress session chaired by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at New Delhi. (HT File Photo)

Later I learnt that R.K. Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s trusted private secretary of twenty—two years, had also been summarily dismissed. He was literally thrown out of 1 Safdarjung Road, and not even allowed to take his papers with him; rather, he was told that they would be bundled and sent to his residence. Another person who got axed was Ghani Khan Choudhury, my compatriot from West Bengal.

In March 1985, Rajiv gave an interview to Sunday magazine:

Q. When you formed your first government, after the elections, why were people like Pranab Mukherjee and Ghani Khan Chowdhury dropped?

A. Well, we really wanted to give a bit of a new look, try and get things moving a bit.

Q. But, seriously, why was Pranab Mukherjee dropped? I grant you the privilege of retaining only those you trust and can work with, but the dropping of a finance minister is clearly a serious matter. I cannot but ask this question.

A: The Finance Ministry was not run tightly enough. I thought we needed a change. The Finance Minister has to be very tough. He can’t be goody-goody. I don’t think he (Mukherjee) was tough enough.

Once the new government had settled in, I returned to Delhi. Though not in government and no longer the Leader of the House, I continued as an MP and an important Congress functionary. My role in Parliament was akin to that of an ordinary member of the party. I made no special effort to reach out to Rajiv or ask why I was dropped. The only time I met Rajiv between 1985 and 1988 was when I went to invite him for my daughter’s wedding. He did not come, but sent a cordial letter.

My absence from the Cabinet resulted in a change in attitude towards me, even within the party.

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In March 1985, Rajiv appointed me President of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee. I saw the appointment as an opportunity, and focused on the immediate task of contesting the elections to the Calcutta Corporation, which were being held after a long gap, in May-June. I put up candidates for all 141 seats. However, the selection process was rife with factionalism. A senior Congress leader, Ashoke Sen, who was the sitting MP from Calcutta and was made a Cabinet Minister in Rajiv’s government, launched a bitter campaign against me. He accused me of supporting a group led by Subrata Mukherjee (now a member of the Trinamool Congress and a senior minister in West Bengal). But this allegation is not correct. In the process of selecting candidates I had consulted Ashoke Sen and all important leaders, including Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, Somen Mitra, Mamata Banerjee and Ajit Panja. Having been an MLA from two constituencies in Calcutta for several years, Subrata was well-acquainted with the Calcutta Corporation. He had been Minister of State in the state government when Siddhartha Shankar Ray had been the Chief Minister and had held the charge of Panchayati Raj and Local Bodies (1972—77). As the minister, he had virtually been the administrator of the Calcutta Corporation, since there was no elected body at that time. Therefore, he knew the Calcutta Corporation well.

The intra-party squabbles saddened me but did not affect my work. In the Lok Sabha elections, held soon after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the Congress had done well, winning 16 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, thanks to a sympathy wave. All 4 Lok Sabha seats from Calcutta, including Jadavpur, had been won by the Congress. It was, therefore, expected that the Congress would secure a majority in the Corporation elections. However, when the results were declared, the Congress lagged behind CPI(M) by 1 seat. While we had given a tough fight, we lost, albeit by a narrow margin. By that time, the Left Front government headed by Jyoti Basu had established firm control over West Bengal, having ruled the state for eight years from 1977. The Left Front got 70 seats out of 141, the Congress 69 and the BJP 2 seats.

ln spite of the loss, the Congress has not performed as well in any Corporation election since then.

It is now widely accepted that local body elections are fought on local issues and their results do not mirror those of assembly elections, even if they are held in quick succession. To be one seat behind the formidable Left Front was actually a creditable performance; besides, I had held the office of PCC President only for a few weeks and had hardly had any time to prepare.

My opponents, however, saw the Corporation defeat as an opportunity, and started demanding my resignation. Ashoke Sen publicly called for a change of command in the state Congress. Taking moral responsibility for the defeat, I declared that I would tender my resignation from the presidency of the PCC. I was asked by the Congress President to continue till a new President was appointed.

In September 1985, Rajiv Gandhi expanded and reshuffled his Cabinet. Ghani Khan Choudhury, who had been dropped from the Cabinet along with me on 31 December 1984, was brought back as Minister for Programme Implementation. But l was still not rehabilitated and, instead, was replaced by Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi as President of the West Bengal PCC.

After the finalization of the Assam Accord by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (August 1985), elections were held to the assembly and the vacant Lok Sabha seats of Assam in December 1985. A by-election was simultaneously held to the Bolpur Lok Sabha seat (in my district) of West Bengal. Siddhartha Shankar Ray was put up as the Congress candidate against Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M), who had been unseated by Mamata Banerjee in the Lok Sabha elections of December 1984. While I was campaigning for Siddhartha Shankar Ray, I received an unexpected call from M.L. Fotedar who told me that my services were needed in Silchar in Assam for campaigning for the Congress in the assembly elections. I, therefore, moved to Silchar and continued to actively campaign for the Congress in the state. (Siddhartha Shankar Ray was eventually defeated by a huge margin of more than a lakh.)

During this period, Kamalapati Tripathi, who was then Working President of the Congress, and Rajiv were at loggerheads. Though Tripathi had not been present at the meeting of the CPB at which P.V. Narasimha Rao and I elected Rajiv as the leader of the CPP, he had played an active role in the CPP meeting held after Mrs Gandhi’s funeral. Tripathi had presided over that meeting which unanimously elected Rajiv Gandhi as the leader of the Congress party in Parliament and fully endorsed the resolution of the CPB. Constitutionally, Rajiv as Prime Minister and leader of the CPP was entitled to preside over a CPP meeting. However, he let Kamalapati Tripathi preside.

All through 1985, though, relations between Kamalapati Tripathi and Rajiv deteriorated. It was reported that Rajiv accused him of not doing much work. Tripathi’s response to that was, ‘I have made Rajiv the Prime Minister of the country.’ Openly critical of some of Rajiv’s policies, Tripathi often wrote to him with his take on various issues relating to the party and the government. These letters were often leaked to the media and, at times, those close to Rajiv accused me of drafting some of them. Though Kamalapati Tripathi sometimes discussed the contents of those letters with me—and, as was always the case, I gave him my frank views—l certainly did not contribute to drafting the letters.

The centenary session of the Congress (27—29 December 1985) in Bombay (now Mumbai) was an important event. It was here that Rajiv made his famous speech targeting the so—called power brokers in the party.

Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country are full of enthusiasm for Congress policies and programmes. But they are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy. They are self—perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice.

For such persons, the masses do not count. Their lifestyle, their thinking—or lack of it—their self-aggrandizement, their corrupt ways, their linkages with the vested interests in society, and their sanctimonious posturing are wholly incompatible with work among the people. They are reducing the Congress organization to a shell from which the spirit of service and sacrifice has been emptied.

The presidential address is normally approved by the CWC before it is finally delivered by the Congress President in the open session. As I was then a member of the CWC, I was aware of the contents of the speech and was therefore not surprised when it was delivered.

Rajiv asked me to move the main centenary declaration at the session. I suggested that P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose Hindi was better than mine, move it and I second it. Rajiv agreed to this. P.V., who was fluent in a number of languages, moved the resolution in chaste Hindi. I began my speech seconding the resolution, but could not complete it. Contrary to the normal practice of announcing a lunch break only after the person seconding the resolution finished his speech, someone decided to announce the lunch break prematurely, forcing me to cut short my speech.

A Cheerful Rajiv Gandhi explaining a point with Pranab Mukherjee beside him at the release of the Congress Manifesto in New Delhi. (HT File Photo)

After being asked to move the main centenary declaration, to my utter shock and dismay, I was dropped from the CWC when it was reconstituted in January 1986. This was a blow which hurt even more than being dropped from the Cabinet. As a Congressman, I had always considered membership of the CWC as the highest recognition possible within the party. I had held that post uninterruptedly since 1978.

I was also dropped from the CPB, the very body to which P.V. Narasimha Rao and I had recommended that Rajiv (as leader of the CPP) be invited by the President to form the government. However, this was to be anticipated, as the CPB is a sub-committee of the CWC.

In 1986, I organized a series of programmes in West Bengal— ‘Congress in the Light of the Centenary’—which was well received by Congress workers. A dozen public meetings addressed by me in different districts of Bengal met with a huge response from Congress workers. But my rivals in the state party organization saw this as ‘parallel activity’ and complained to Rajiv. My successor as the state PCC President wrote to me requesting me to stop these programmes. I immediately did so and announced in the press that all future programmes would now stand cancelled: ‘As a disciplined Congressman, I obey the orders of the state Congress party and the programmes would not be held henceforth.’ Dasmunsi appreciated my action and publicly thanked me through the media. Nonetheless, my opponents within the Congress lost no opportunity to poison Rajiv’s mind against me.

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In April 1986, Pritish Nandy, Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, requested me for an interview and I agreed. Little did I know that he was out to make mischief. The Illustrated Weekly carried a twelve-page story titled ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, which created a furore in political circles. The report implied that I knew something which would harm the party, the government and Rajiv. It claimed that I was waiting for an opportunity to use such information and that Rajiv’s power base was weakening.

There was nothing objectionable in any of the responses I gave to Pritish Nandy’s questions, but the magazine talked about my popularity ratings improving in comparison to Rajiv’s, my growing power base, and so on. None of these observations were based on what I had said on record. The questions in the interview had been deliberately framed to compare Mrs Gandhi’s rule to Rajiv’s, and I could not but give honest responses. Some of my anguish at being dropped from the CWC and CPB and being treated as an outcast also came through. However, I had made it absolutely clear that there was no move to split the party, that there was no question of destroying a national institution like the Congress and that the party would survive all dissent.

On 26 April 1986, I was at Kamalapati Tripathi’s residence when his daughter-in-law, Chandra, brought me the shocking news that I had been expelled from the party for six years. She had heard it as a newsflash. No one from the party leadership had bothered to inform me. Even so, I remained unruffled.

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.’

The news of my expulsion disturbed Kamalapati Tripathi, and he immediately wrote to Rajiv, lodging his strong protest. Vasantdada Patil, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra and Governor of Rajasthan, also protested against my expulsion. Sadly, most of my colleagues in West Bengal did not utter a single word.

In an interview on 31 May 1986, India Today’s T.N. Ninan asked Rajiv Gandhi several questions, including the reasons guiding the action against me.

TNN: What was your understanding of what the dissidents in the Congress (I) were up to?

RG: I thought a few people were going beyond the limits of normal... what should I say... freedom of action within the democratic processes of the party, especially when elections in the party are due [,] so that all the feelings could be vented in the election process. So we took some action.

TNN: What exactly did they do? Was it just the interview that Pranab Mukherjee gave to The Illustrated Weekly of India?

RG: Well, a series of things.

TNN: What specifically?

RG: l have told them specifically.

TNN: Did you think that interview went beyond the limits of party discipline?

RG: Certain words in it, yes. And some other actions also.

TNN: Why did you pick on Pranab Mukherjee? There were others who wrote you letters.

RG: He didn’t write me a letter.

TNN: He said he’s written to you on the Muslim Bill.

RG: I haven’t got that letter. I don’t know where it is...

TNN: What is the basic problem with the dissidents?

RG: Well, one basic problem is that party elections are coming and it’s going to expose all the paper tigers. We have not had elections for 13 years; so we have people who’ve lost their base, who don’t have any standing. That will all get exposed.

Now what we’ve got to do is to see that the elections are fair, because if it’s not fair then the pressures in the party will be much more, and instead of the elections letting off steam they will create much greater pressures...

TNN: The question keeps coming up whether Pranab Mukherjee really did stake a claim to the prime ministership in October 1984. What is the truth?

RG: I don’t know. I was in the hospital.

TNN: No, in the aeroplane from Calcutta.

RG: We didn’t really talk about it. I don’t know what he talked with the others. I didn’t discuss it with any of them.

TNN: Did Pranab overestimate his real strength and therefore become a fall guy, because he is prominent and he doesn’t really have a following? So if you pick on him you get the message across?

RG: We picked the four or five people who we thought, were making... trying to destabilise the party... who were going beyond the limits of democratic freedom in the party. And we took action. There is no...sort...of...further motivation than that.

I spent many sleepless nights wondering why I was dropped from the Cabinet and driven out of the party. I can only speculate.

My personal equation with Rajiv was always good, though limited, before Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. Prior to his joining politics, we just exchanged pleasantries when we happened to run into each other. His reaction was sharper than that of Sanjay when Mrs Gandhi was arrested on 3 October 1977.

After Sanjay Gandhi’s death, there was a ‘Rajiv Lao’ campaign. While people like H.K.L. Bhagat and Buta Singh actively campaigned for his entry into politics, I took the position that he was most welcome but it was for him to decide. After being elected an MP from Amethi, he was made the AlCC General Secretary. The frequency of our meetings increased. We interacted on all major issues. I attended programmes he organized to interact with Congress workers and there was no animosity between us or a divergence of views. There was no cause for him to suspect or distrust me.

I was, however, a very busy person in the early 1980s, handling several important and demanding portfolios, including Finance. Rajiv, on the other hand, had a group around him comprising people like Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and Vijay Dhar. Janardhan Poojary, my Deputy Minister in the Finance Ministry, used to tell me frequently that these individuals were plotting against me, but I didn’t pay heed, assuming this was idle gossip.

Then, there was the tussle between Swraj Paul and DCM/ Escorts, which I have already discussed in a previous chapter. Both Swraj Paul and H. P. Nanda have written in their memoirs about the role played by Rajiv during the controversy, and its final resolution. Rajiv discussed the matter with me several times, but at no point did he express any displeasure with my actions.

After Rajiv assumed office, many foreign correspondents asked me whether he was an interim Prime Minister. l categorically replied that there was no provision for an interim government in our Constitution, and Rajiv Gandhi had been appointed as a regular Prime Minister by the President on the advice of the CPB and this decision had been subsequently ratified by the CPP.

Perhaps I should have sensed Rajiv’s growing unhappiness and the hostility of those around him and taken pre—emptive action. However, I remained engrossed in my work, as is my usual way. 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. Petty things were blown up into huge issues.

For example, an interview I gave on 31 October 1984-—in which I stated that the economic policies of the government would be continued—was interpreted as questioning the authority of the Prime Minister. While I had given the interview to quell any uncertainty about India in the international markets following the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, it was portrayed as presumptuous and unmindful of Rajiv’s authority.

Similarly, when Rajiv Gandhi visited West Bengal to campaign for the 1984 elections, I was unable to accompany him because of important meetings in Delhi. I had invited some foreign guests in my capacity as Chairman of the G-24 developing countries’ group of finance ministers associated with the World Bank and IMF. I was accused of ignoring the Prime Minister and Congress President when he was campaigning in my home state.

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Another incident occurred during the meeting of the CPB to select Congress candidates for the general election of 1984. The nomination of the incumbent Lok Sabha members, Kamal Nath from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh and Professor Nirmla Kumari Shaktawat from Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, was opposed by some people close to Rajiv, including Arun Nehru. I strongly protested and insisted on their nomination. The vehemence of my protest perhaps displeased Rajiv, who repeatedly said, ‘Reserve it for the consideration of the President’--meaning himself.

Clearly, Rajiv did not like my proximity to Kamalapati Tripathi. Media reports speculating about dissident activities may also have angered him.

To return to the question of why he dropped me from the Cabinet and expelled me from the party, all I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience. Overall, the difference in age between Rajiv and I was only nine years. When I was dropped from the Cabinet, I was not even fifty years old. But we were clearly of very different backgrounds and temperaments. Rajiv was a reluctant politician. He was forced by circumstances to become Prime Minister at the age of forty. He was ahead of his times. He wanted rapid change and saw the old guard in the Congress as an obstacle to his vision. He was forward-looking, tech-savvy and welcomed foreign investment in India as well as an enlargement of the market economy. In contrast, I was a conservative, conventional political leader who favoured the public sector, a regulated economy and wanted foreign investment only from NRls.

Sumit Mitra of India Today perhaps best described why Rajiv did what he did:

The loyalists thought him to be a bridge between the old and the new. But the newcomers did not quite trust him. Cautious and suave, Mukherjee is too much of a bhadralok to have posed any real threat to Rajiv, or even to drop a hint ever that he would indeed like to be in the race. He was a symbol of a past that Rajiv wished to get away from. As the order of the round-table ended, he had to slip out of the limelight.

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