This Article is From Aug 31, 2020

Pranab Mukherjee On Emergency, His RSS Speech, Indira Gandhi, PM Modi

Pranab Mukherjee On Emergency, His RSS Speech, Indira Gandhi, PM Modi

Cover of Sonia Singh's book 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes'

A political giant once, an elder statesman at the time of his death, Bharat Ratna and ex-President Pranab Mukherjee was often referred to as the Best Prime Minister India never had.

I had the occasion to spend some time with him over a series of discussions in 2018 and 2019, when he agreed to be interviewed for my book, "Defining India: Through their Eyes" and he very kindly agreed to be the Chief Guest at the book launch in May last year. A few months later, my family and I were his invited guests at his Bharat Ratna investiture ceremony. He is someone I will miss knowing personally and India will miss for the depth of his intellectual and political contribution.

In these edited excerpts, I believe the true character of the man shines through. His tenure as President had ended, the presidency itself was an an end to a turbulent though accomplished political career, yet what struck me is how the stature of this physically diminutive man had not diminished outside the trappings of power, be it Rashtrapati Bhavan or North Block.

As he reminisced, we talked about his final speech to Parliament, where he said, "For the past fifty years of my public life, my sacred book has been the Constitution of India, my temple has been the Parliament of India and my passion, the service of the People of India."

"That was a speech of sadness," Pranab Mukherjee, seated behind a teak wood table in his book-lined study, told me. "When I look back, the one thing that strikes me is that the last fifty years of my life have revolved around these magnificent buildings of Parliament - this temple of democracy. When I first entered here on 13 July 1969 - the day the monsoon session of Parliament began - I had no identity. Nobody knew me. All I had was a piece of paper - as a certificate of my election to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal - given to me by the Secretary of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. So, when I gave my final speech here, I looked at the audience sitting in front of me and it had Members of Parliament, members of the Union Cabinet, state chief ministers, governors of states and representatives of the diplomatic corps from various countries. That day no one asked me, as the security people of the Rajya Sabha once did 48 years ago, 'Who are you?'"

Yet, though he had retired, in a political surprise, India's highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, was given to the lifetime Congressman by the Modi government, the announcement coming just a day before Republic Day in 2019.

"What about the political messaging," I asked him, "the fact that a BJP Prime Minister chose you?"

In true Pranab style, his answer wasn't direct. He replied, "I feel this is a larger recognition, not a recognition of an individual. In fact, in this case, I entirely agree with Rahul Gandhi, when he tweeted shortly after the announcement - 'Congratulations to Pranab Da on being awarded the Bharat Ratna. The Congress takes great pride in the fact that the immense contribution to public service and nation building of one of our own, has been recognized and honoured.' This is the recognition of one of our man's contribution," Pranab Mukherjee said. "That means a recognition of a Congressman's contribution. I take it in that way."

An answer conveyed with the greatest subtlety by a political strategist who has often kept his own party guessing.

Once an unknown first-time MP plucked out of political obscurity by Indira Gandhi in 1969, he went on to become a key player in India's political narrative for the next five decades. Pranab Mukherjee had witnessed first-hand the Indira Gandhi days, the Emergency, her dramatic election loss and then her triumphant return, Operation Blue Star, her assassination, and then Rajiv Gandhi's, his widow's rise to power, going on to become the most powerful minister in the UPA government and then becoming the President of India during the tenure of two very different prime ministers-Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.

I asked him about the Emergency and his role.

He chose his words carefully. "The impact of the declaration of Emergency by Parliament curbed the fundamental rights of the people to some extent. That was the adverse impact. Freedom was affected. So, when we talk of the Emergency, we refer particularly to the abuse of emergency powers that curbs freedom. When the BJP says Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency in June 1975, they mean during the Emergency for thirteen months, there were a lot of curtailments of people's rights. People were placed under detention without trial. When the Congress talks of an Emergency-like situation today, they mean that without declaring Emergency, the rights of individuals are being curbed. But this is a political battle in which I do not want a part. In hindsight, yes, the Emergency could have been avoided, it would have been better if it could have been avoided. I leave it to the future historians and researchers to educate and enlighten Indians." That's as far as he would be drawn in this matter but more than 40 years later, it was clear it was a regret for him.

"However," he mused, "the greatest challenge I have lived through, which brought about an unprecedented crisis for our nation, was when a sitting prime minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. India had never faced a situation like this before."

At the time of her assassination, Pranab Mukherjee was Indira Gandhi's closest political advisor and highest-ranking minister in the government.

"On 31 October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi and I were onstage at a rally in Kanthi, West Bengal. I had just finished speaking when I received a cryptic message. 'The Prime Minister has been assaulted. Return to Delhi immediately.' Rajiv was giving his speech, so I passed him a note asking him to cut it short. He did so, and we immediately started planning our return to Delhi. My colleague Ghani Khan Choudhary had his Mercedes while we were travelling in Ambassadors. He suggested we take his car, since it would be faster.

"Rajiv had the radio tuned to the BBC, then at one point he turned to me and said, 'Pranab, the BBC is saying sixteen bullets have been fired into her.' He then turned to his personal security officer sitting next to me and asked, 'This gun you're carrying to protect me, how potent are the bullets?' The poor man was a loss how to answer, then he said sheepishly, 'Very powerful, sir!' I tried to keep his hopes up by pointing out that the BBC had also reported that I, along with Rajiv, had reached Delhi, while we were still on the highway. I told him if they're wrong about this, they could be wrong about that too. However, the sense of foreboding wouldn't go away as we drove silently on," Pranab recounted.

"At Kolkata airport, we boarded a special plane to Delhi. Rajiv went into the cockpit. When he emerged, all he said was, 'She is dead'."

The plane was full of senior Congress leaders and Rajiv Gandhi's statement was met with shock. While her son kept his composure, Pranab Mukherjee remembered breaking down.

"I was shattered. I just kept crying and crying. Sheila Dixit, who was on the same flight, had to give me three or four handkerchiefs as I wet each one with my tears," he said.

Despite his grief, Pranab's first instinct was to take charge of the situation. His political mentor was dead and there were rumours that Pranab Mukherjee expected to be sworn in as the next Prime Minister instead of the relatively inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi, who was a first-time MP at the time.

"Complete canards," he said dismissively. "I was number two in government then and I realized immediately there must be no vacuum between the death of a Prime Minister and the swearing in of a new one...I asked Rajiv to take over as Prime Minister and that he had to be sworn in as soon as we landed," he said emphatically.

And then perhaps the most chilling part, a decision by the ever-pragmatic Pranab - "Indira Gandhi had to be kept officially alive till Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in. Her death could not be announced. That message was relayed," he concluded tersely.

When they landed in Delhi, the Chief of Army Staff, the Cabinet Secretary and others were waiting to meet Rajiv Gandhi at the airport. It was at the airport that the Cabinet Secretary told Pranab Mukherjee that he should be sworn in as interim prime minister because he was the senior-most minister after Indira Gandhi.

"But I refused," remembered Pranab. "I told the Cabinet Secretary we have had an informal meeting on the aircraft, Rajiv, I and other senior Congress leaders like then Bengal governor, Uma Shankar Dixit, we have decided Rajiv Gandhi should take over as the next prime minister. The Cabinet Secretary immediately ordered Rajiv Gandhi's security to be enhanced and preparations began immediately."

Rajiv Gandhi was eventually sworn in that night by President Giani Zail Singh along with a small group of four ministers, including Pranab Mukherjee. Twelve hours after her death, the Vice President announced the news about Indira Gandhi and the swearing in of a new government simultaneously on Doordarshan.

"Mrs Gandhi had to be kept 'alive' till the new Prime Minister took over," Pranab Mukherjee told me. "It's like they say in Great Britain - The King is Dead, Long Live the King. There can be no vacuum."

"You think she didn't know the risk after Operation Blue Star?" Pranab Mukherjee asked me, still visibly moved after so many years.

"Indira Gandhi had once said to me, 'Pranab, I know I will die for this country.'"

It was a premonition that came tragically true. The smooth political transition, however, came at an unacceptably high human cost. Delhi burned in the days after Indira Gandhi's killing, over 2,500 Sikhs were killed in the aftermath. "Why did that happen on your government's watch? Was it a failure?" I asked him.

"The army was deployed too late," he replied tersely. "The home minister had been informed of the situation. There were reports coming in from all over. However, these are matters of national security, I cannot tell you more..."

Ironically, the man who was with Rajiv Gandhi when he took over as Prime Minister was dropped from his Cabinet just two months later. The seeds of doubt - Pranab Mukherjee as a possible contender to the role - sown by those close to Rajiv Gandhi after his mother's death had borne fruit. And history was destined to repeat itself. In 1991, seven years later, during his election campaign in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.

"It was a monumental tragedy," Pranab Mukherjee said. "In fact, I feel Rajiv Gandhi would have been a much better prime minister the second time around."

"You are often described as the best Prime Minister India never had'. In 2004, when Sonia Gandhi led the party to victory against a formidable Atal Behari Vajpayee and then stepped aside, did you feel that you deserved the post as prime minister," I asked.

"I criticized her, I disagreed with her strongly at the time," Pranab said forthrightly. "I didn't agree with her decision to step aside at all. I told her the mandate was for her, the mandate was not for her to appoint someone else in her place. She had no right to do that. She had taken her decision, however, and in that situation, Manmohan Singh was the best man for the job."

"The two Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, are often compared to each other. You've worked with one very closely and interacted with the other. Do you find any similarities," I asked.

"They are more dissimilar than similar," he replied. "Indira Gandhi was secular to the last bone in her body. However, the one thing they share is political understanding. They have both visited Arunachal Pradesh twice as Prime Minister. Even though the state has only two seats, they did it because they have a national vision. They want to send a strong message to China. Their similarities end there."

However, I pointed out to him, the most significant political transition of our times has been not a change of government but the BJP replacing the Congress as the central axis of national politics. The other big transition in the larger political landscape had been the shift from secularism to Hinduism, with even the Congress today following the BJP in wearing a religious identity as a badge of honour.

"It's just temporary. India needs the Congress. Without the Congress we will be Balkanized. I am convinced this will not be a constant position," Pranab Mukherjee responded emphatically.

"More importantly, Hinduism is the greatness, the vastness of this country. It is a way of life, and it is inclusive. It cannot, and must not, be brought into the competitive nature of politics. Doing so will sully it. Do we want to be Pakistan? In the West, the American President is sworn in with the Bible and in England, the monarch does the same while swearing in the prime minister, but in India, we use the Constitution. That is our holy book and secularism is the cornerstone of our great Republic,' he concludes."

Yet, the ex-President chose to go against what his party had publicly expressed, and go to the RSS, the very antithesis, many would argue, of the views he has just outlined. On 6 June 2018, Pranab Mukherjee's speech at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur was broadcast live by every television network. I was struck by the deftness with which he made a larger political point as he quoted Jawahar Lal Nehru - the Sangh's bete noire - in their home ground with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat listening intently. And that he did in quintessential Pranab style.

"Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity. It was this Nationalism that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru so vividly expressed in the Discovery of India, and I quote," said Pranab Mukherjee in his speech. '"I am convinced that Nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and other groups in India. That does not mean that extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook, to which other matters are subordinated."'

Pranab Mukherjee ended with, "The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. This plurality of our society has come through assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation."

He smiled as he told me, "I wanted to go to the lion's den and show them where they are going wrong."

A larger message that couldn't have been lost to both the BJP and the Congress. As we ended, I reflected, it was Pranab Mukherjee's sweeping overview of India's political and cultural history that is unparalleled today. His intellect and political understanding are a rarity in our times when political discourse has been debased - in that, he was a true Bharat Ratna.

Excerpted with permission of Penguin India from 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes' by Sonia Singh. Order your copy here.

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