The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996
theturbulentyears.png President Pranab Mukherjee steers clear of whipping up a controversy. He was shell shocked when Rajiv Gandhi dropped him from his cabinet in 1984. Reminiscent of 1977 Pranabda went on a holiday with his family. ""I let my frustration overtake my patience."" Pranabda was sent packing from the Congress in 1986. He floated Rashtriya Samajwadi party which disappeared after failing in the West Bengal elections. Pranabda returns to Congress in 1988 even though his expulsion was not on record. The 1989 Congress defeat brought Pranab and Rajiv Gandhi closer. President Mukherjee says country remained true to the idea of India as envisaged in the Constitution.
For someone with a razor sharp memory having been associated with decision making during the most turbulent years in the post Independence era, President Pranab Mukherjee has deliberately underplayed certain key aspects affecting him politically. The second volume of his autobiography -- THE TURBULENT YEARS : 1980-1996 -- is rather disappointing. It is apparent the First Citizen has preferred to steer clear rather than whip up an unseemly controversy. He has about 18 months remaining in Rashtrapati Bhawan having assumed the high office of Head of State on 25 July 2012. On the political crisis that he faced including his expulsion from the Congress, Pranabda has assiduously avoided taking any names who had tried sending him to the political dog house. Mukherjee draws attention to ""rumours"" that he wanted to elbow out Rajiv Gandhi for the top post as the possible reason for his ouster from the cabinet and eventually the Congress party. ""All I can say is that he (Rajiv Gandhi) 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."" The Congress swept the December 1984 general elections with 404 out of 514 seats in the Lok Sabha while the BJP got only two seats. Pranabda was summarily dropped from the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet which was not even peripherally in his mind. ""I heard no rumours nor had anybody in the party ever vaguely hinted at it.
I was shell shocked and could not believe it. But I composed myself as my wife watched the swearing-in ceremony on television. I had ceased to be a minister and as I had done in 1977 went off on a holiday with my family who had long suffered my neglect."" He was sent packing from the Congress two years later in April 1986. Mukherjee decided to float his own party -- the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC) bringing together disenchanted Congress leaders from different parts of the country. The RSC contested the West Bengal assembly elections in March 1987 and a large number of his candidates lost their deposit. He acknowledges after this resounding defeat, the newly created RSC simply disappeared. ""I was thoroughly disenchanted with politics and chose instead to concentrate on writing my memoirs."" His homecoming to the Congress finally took place when he campaigned for the Tripura assembly elections on second February 1988. He learnt later that two individuals Santosh Mohan Deb and Sheila Dikshit lobbied with Rajiv to bring Mukherjee back into the party. He was surprised by Dikshit's support as he had not known her personally at that time. There is no doubt that Pranabda was willing to return to the party with the least fuss.
When a scribe asked if his expulsion had been revoked, the Congress spokesman's skillful response was ""only Congress persons are campaigning for the party in Tripura."" Nobody said that the expulsion had been withdrawn as there was nothing on record. A large number of Congressmen in West Bengal and Tripura felt only by bringing these two states under President's rule could their party ever hope to win an electoral battle against the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front. They rejected Mukherjee's explanation that President's rule could not arbitrarily be imposed under the Constitution. They believed that it was his advice to the central Congress leadership which was preventing the imposition of central rule in the two states. A silent and vicious campaign started against him that he had a secret understanding with the Left Front leaders of Bengal who in turn had supported his election to the Rajya Sabha. In turn it was claimed he had helped the Left Front by ensuring that President's rule was not imposed in the state. Much later in a heart to heart conversation in 1991, P V Narasimha Rao told Pranabda that if he had not formed another party after his expulsion, perhaps his return to the Congress might have been much faster. Rajiv would have brought him back especially after Arun Nehru, V P Singh and others had deserted him. ""Looking back, I feel that PV was correct. I could have avoided the RSC fiasco.
I should have had the wisdom to realize that I was (and am) not a mass leader. Those who left the Congress rarely succeeded."" He observes ""I could have been some help to the Congress party and the government during those crucial years of 1986 and 1987 when everything seemed to go wrong for Rajiv. I returned to the party in 1988 -- too late to make any significant difference to the Congress performance in the Lok Sabha elections of 1989. Rajiv Gandhi's defeat in 1989 ""brought us close together and he (Rajiv) entrusted me with a lot of work."" When P V Narasimha Rao was recalled and went on to become the Prime Minister in 1991, Mukherjee was conspicuous by his absence in his council of ministers. He was extremely upset. PV specially summoned Mukherjee and told him there were compulsions and could not reveal the name of that person. May be at some later date. But that never happened. Nevertheless, Mukherjee was offered the Deputy Chairmanship of the Planning Commission. When Mukherjee said he will think it over, PV told him curtly ""you can think for as long as you want but I want you to join on Monday."" Sadly PV never got round to telling Mukherjee ""why he could not induct me into the cabinet. It remains a mystery to me till date."" The Congress had emerged as the single largest entity in 1991 with 132 seats and was able to form the government. The period between 1988 and 1991 was one of significant social and political turmoil in this country. Communal and caste politics came to the forefront. He felt it is difficult for him to make an assessment of V P Singh as he had only limited interaction with him.
On the other hand Chandra Shekhar began his political career in 1951 and was one of the few members of the ruling Congress to have been imprisoned during the Emergency for revolting against Indira Gandhi's authoritarian style of functioning. In fact, he was held in high esteem across parties -- a tribute to his statesmanship. Given a viable chance, Chandra Shekhar might well have proven himself as one of India's best Prime Ministers. In 1991 the country confronted a general election and Rajiv Gandhi made Mukherjee the chairman of the campaign committee as well as party spokesperson. His last meeting with Rajiv Gandhi was on the eve of his tragic death on May 21, 1991 when he was assassinated by a woman suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur near Chennai. ""Rajiv's death shattered me. India had lost one of its most dynamic leaders. In a short political career of eleven years, Rajiv had carved out an important place for himself in India's contemporary history."" This period witnessed a shift from one party dominance to multiple -- regional as well as national parties. It saw the growth of regional and coalition politics leading to increasing demands for state autonomy. Then, there was the emergence of subnationalism in the form of regional movements in Punjab and the Northeast posing a huge challenge to the nation. And finally caste entered the framework of politics. The Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, the Shah Bano verdict and the Mandal Commission report changed the nature of political mobilisation. Through all these challenges India grew stronger. As the turbulent years drew to a close, the country remained true to the idea of India as envisaged by the makers of the Constitution.
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(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)