Did Congress president Sonia Gandhi miss a trick in the summer of 2012 by not replacing Manmohan Singh with Pranab Mukherjee as prime minister and instead elevating the former as president? Could greater flexibility by the Congress to the views of others, especially coalition partners, during UPA-II have enabled the party to provide a more robust fight to the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014? Did Congress leaders begin considering that the 200-odd seats the party won in 2009 were effectively 280 seats and allowed this to bloat their egos?
These questions stem from the few interviews given by former President Pranab Mukherjee as part of the standard publisher-propelled exercise to promote his latest book, The Coalition Years, the third part of his memoir. Mukherjee also participated in an interactive session hosted by the Indian Express as part of its ongoing series, ‘Express Adda’.
Like in the book, he has so far stayed away from commenting or disclosing matters relating to his presidential years. In March this year, at the India Today Conclave, Mukherjee declared that he wished to write at some point about his years in Rashtrapati Bhawan.
The only disclosure made so far of his time at Raisina Hill is that though he had a copy-book relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they had their moments of disagreements. However, both knew how to manage their differences. Given that the third part of his memoir has delved into several sensitive issues related to crucial political selections, Mukherjee’s tome on the presidential years shall be awaited keenly for details on areas of differences with Modi.
Differences between Mukherjee and Modi are well known on at least two issues. The former president spoke with regularity on the need to remain tolerant and also advised the government against frequent legislations by the ordinance route.
Among Mukherjee’s disclosures and observations in his third volume and subsequent media interactions, the spotlight has centred on the prime ministership that eluded him, not once, not twice, but at least thrice – first in 2004, then in January 2009 when Singh underwent a coronary artery bypass surgery and finally in 2012, prior to the presidential election.
Mukherjee was asked if Gandhi chose Singh because of the ‘trust factor’ that there was fear that he would either ‘walk away with the party’ or challenge her authority if elevated to the top spot. Mukherjee deflected the question towards Gandhi, saying that it was for her to state if Singh was chosen because she ranked the former president lower on the ‘loyalty index’.
Much of what Mukherjee disclosed is in the realm of ‘what would have been’. But they must be mulled over because the course of history would have been different and the contemporary situation dramatically dissimilar.
In 2004, the BJP’s defeat was a surprise to Gandhi as well as the Congress. For reasons of her own, Gandhi rejected leadership and chose to function through a freshly created dual power system. She did not choose Mukherjee for a variety of reasons. He may have been elected to the Lok Sabha for just the first time in 2004, but despite a lifetime in the Upper House, Mukherjee was a more ‘political’ person than Singh was. And that was his undoing.
Gandhi was obviously sceptical about installing a politically savvy leader whose ambitions were not hidden. He clearly couldn’t be trusted in 7 Race Course Road. Mukherjee, outside government too, would have been a risky proposition – the reason why he was almost forced to join the government despite not getting a portfolio of his choice.
In 2004, the Congress won just 145 seats as against the 138 bagged by the BJP. Consequently, the Congress was hugely dependent on regional allies who collectively outnumbered personal loyalists. In that situation, Gandhi could ill-afford a Congress leader with personal connections in other parties, someone adept at durbar politics. Singh possessed neither such skills nor, Gandhi believed, was he inclined to pick up those tricks. He wished to remain a loyalist intent on stamping his mark in history with policy decisions and not political guile.
Without a doubt, Mukherjee would have proved more independent than Singh.
At the book launch, the former prime minister in fact confessed that Mukherjee was “more qualified” to become prime minister in 2004 but he had “little role in that choice”. It may have evoked laughter from the audience, but Gandhi, also present at the Teen Murti auditorium, would not have been greatly pleased with Singh’s candid admission.
According to most accounts, Mukherjee possibly fancied his chances again in January 2009 when Singh was out of action for several weeks. Elections were due later that year and there was still no certainty if Gandhi wished to project Singh as the UPA’s prime ministerial face again.
But little had changed for Mukherjee – what was held against him in 2004 was still flagged. This was most evident when after 26/11, the home ministry – that Mukherjee coveted in 2004 – was again denied to him after Shivraj Patil’s resignation.
There is no certainty if the iron grip Gandhi exercised over both the party and the government with Singh as prime minister would have endured had Mukherjee occupied that office. Possibly, Mukherjee would have sought a role in influencing party matters also, especially in selecting candidates for the 2009 polls. Gandhi would have remained Congress president but perhaps she would have had to consult Mukherjee. Ties between the government and the ruling party would possibly have not been run smoothly because temperamentally, Gandhi and Mukherjee are strong characters and don’t like their individuality squashed.
But Gandhi missed an opportunity in 2012 to make a change and reverse the slide of UPA-II. History would have been different if Singh was elevated as president and Mukherjee made prime minister. By 2012, the UPA was going downhill and Gandhi needed to take dramatic steps to salvage the situation.
Mukherjee claimed that she fielded him as the presidential candidate because tge UPA was slightly short in the electoral college and she hoped his personal connections would ensure his victory. But if he had become prime minister, Mukherjee would have ensured Singh’s election as president. He may have also ensured that Mamata Banerjee remained with the coalition, if only for Bengali pride.
If Mukherjee was elevated as prime minister, his political adroitness would also have prevented the virtual walkover that Modi eventually secured. Mukherjee’s connections in the industry would also have come in way of the ease with which Modi secured corporate India’s support. The charge of policy paralysis would also have been negated under Mukherjee. The Congress needed either a street-smart or a battle-scarred leader, not a gentleman-scholar.
Appointing Mukherjee president was an instance of talent wasted. Instead of innovating, Gandhi allowed matters to drift. In hindsight, it appears that she allowed prejudice to get the better of reason.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin