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Why did Pranab not reveal all in his book?

November 07, 2017 11:56 IST

What Shekhar Gupta would have liked to know more about from Pranabda:

  • Why did Sonia prefer Dr Singh to him as PM?
  • Why did he deny finance first, why did he accept it 5 years later, and why did he make such a mess of it?
  • How did he force Sonia to nominate him for President and not Hamid Ansari?
  • And how does he justify that most toxic legacy -- the Vodafone tax amendment?

The history of Pranab Mukherjee's five-decade public life tells you that 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, the 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 last 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.

Jawaharlal 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 P V Narasimha Rao and I K Gujral. Some were not left the time and energy to do so by their advancing years, some didn't just have the scholarship, notes, or even a story to tell.

One who 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 creditable, 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, but also flawed in concealing too much and talking too often in bureaucratic cipher, cryptography, and semaphore.

It was understandable in the first two volumes. These were published while he was still in Rashtrapati Bhavan and was bound by its maryada. Now, 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 for self-justification on too many contentious issues and decisions in the United Progressive Alliance decade, and also for blaming some of his peers by innuendo. We would have expected greater clarity and candour from him.

Here is my list of the turning points involving Pranabda in the UPA's 10 years that we would have loved more clarity on:

  • Why did Sonia Gandhi prefer Manmohan Singh to him as prime minister and how did he cope with that?
  • Why did he deny finance first up, why did he accept it five years later, and why did he make such a mess of it?
  • How did he outmanoeuvre Sonia and force her to nominate him for President and not Hamid Ansari?
  • And how does he justify leaving that most toxic legacy of the (Vodafone) retrospective tax amendment?

He does address these but mostly skirts around them.

He claims he had told Sonia in 2004 he didn't want finance.

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'?

He is at his most candid, even cutting best, explaining his economic philosophy.

He says on his differences with P Chidambaram: 'While I was conservative and believed in reforms as...gradual transformation of the economy -- a controlled regime. He is a pro-liberalisation and pro-market economist.'

Elsewhere, he takes Chidambaram apart for earning fame for his 1997 'dream' Budget, but getting his numbers all wrong.

So he pre-emptively refused finance in 2004 because he fundamentally disagreed with Manmohan Singh.

And yet, five years later, happily (there is no hint of reluctance in his account), he accepted the same ministry, succeeding Chidambaram, with whom too he had differed with.

This is troublesome. Because his stint in finance was a disaster, growth stalled, and hasn't really recovered since.

All the initiatives he took or pursued (Financial Stability and Development Council, Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, Direct Taxes Code, Government Debt Management Office) remained incomplete.

He makes no secret of his disagreements with the then Reserve Bank of India Governor Dr D Subbarao, who 'had been thrust upon me'.

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 some key events.

The most important is the scams and the funny goings-on between his office and the prime minister's over the 2G scam.

He does himself a disservice by writing a 278 page book without mentioning Baba Ramdev when his biggest misstep as finance minister was going to Delhi airport to meet him on the black money issue.

It was among the biggest humiliations for the UPA in that phase.

To Dada-watchers it was a big surprise that he fell for such a nonsensical trap of some busybody hangers-on.

An inside out reading of his account would give the other side of his brilliant career.

He was denied what he sees as his due too many times: Prime ministership by the Gandhi family's inside operators after Indira Gandhi's assassination; again in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi 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.

There is the odd hidden gem that tells us Dada is also human -- like his walking away from a meeting with Sonia Gandhi on June 2, 2012, with the 'vague impression' that she would elevate Manmohan Singh to Rashtrapati Bhavan and make him prime minister instead.

This was because: 'I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in Kaushambi Hills.'

And then Sonia Gandhi turned the knife by telling him, after he had admonished Sushma Swaraj and restored sanity in the Lok Sabha, 'This is why you can't be President.'

There is more. M J Akbar, he says, was 'working hard to further the cause of my Presidential nomination' (in the Bharatiya Janata Party, of course).

He came to meet Pranabda on May 27, 2012, told him about his informal discussions with L K Advani and Jaswant Singh, and 'insisted that both of them were supportive'.

He says he had hoped this could make his election unanimous. Now nobody knows if he told his party that he was also engaging with the BJP for support. How they would have reacted you can guess.

Pranabda tells us later how Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel were mad with him for meeting Balasaheb Thackeray to thank him for support despite her disapproval.

Since Pranabda's tone is so consistently preachy and he keeps saying 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 Gandhi, 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 name our usual suspect through his innuendo.

He takes pride in the fact that in the past five years no finance minister has been able to repeal it.

But none has gone ahead to recover the money either, and Vodafone is 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 he had to recreate one under a prime minister who had dismantled it in 1991 we will need a less partisan biographer to find out.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

IMAGE: Former President Pranab Mukherjee and former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh at the launch of The Coalition Years. Photograph: Kind courtesy @CitiznMukherjee/Twitter

Shekhar Gupta
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