Make no mistake, no one other than a Nehru-Gandhi has ever got the better of Pranabda in a battle within the Congress
In the autumn of his career, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress’ bhadralok politician who is widely seen as the party’s most active link with the pre-Rajiv Gandhi era, is still willing to fight a battle better suited to younger men. As his recent feud with Home Minister P Chidambaram shows, despite his public climbdown, he has emerged far better in the face-off within the UPA Cabinet. After the initial feeling that the truce statement Mukherjee was made to read out last week was a mouthful of humble pie, many in the party and beyond are realising now that while Chidambaram’s image has been gravely damaged, Pranabda hasn’t lost anything worth his worry.
“Outmanoeuvring is what he does best when he finds petty politics being done to tarnish his image,” says a Congress Working Committee member, explaining some of the traits that distinguish the party’s stalwart and master strategist from most of his colleagues. “Dada has a knack of winning political battles, whether inside or outside the party, quietly.” For Mukherjee, no victory comes as a gift. It is hardfought, often till the very end, and through a mastery of statecraft rather than skullduggery.
Mukherjee is not ready to bow out anytime yet. This became evident on 28 September when he wrote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a four-page clarification on the Finance Ministry note released by the PMO suggesting that Chidambaram, who was Finance Minister in 2008, could have got A Raja to cancel the 2G licences issued by the Telecom Ministry. Instead of minimising accusations against Chidambaram, Mukherjee’s clarification expanded their scope and even dragged the PMO into the controversy. The note of 25 March 2011, Mukherjee’s clarification pointed out, was not simply the view of the Finance Ministry, but also of the Cabinet Secretary, Law Secretary, Telecom Secretary, and senior officials of the PMO, including Principal Secretary TKA Nair.
Even in his truce declaration, Mukherjee did not retract the facts stated in his note: “Apart from the factual background [on spectrum allocation], the paper [note] contains certain inferences and interpretations which do not reflect my views,” he said. To this, Chidambaram added that he was happy with the statement read out by his “senior and distinguished colleague”. Both, however, knew that it was not the end of the controversy. For, the Home Minister’s image had already been grievously injured.
That is typical of Pranabda, who, according to Congress insiders, hardly ever indulges in politicking, but is usually the gainer if forced into that arena. That he was indeed dragged into this controversy is no longer a secret. The controversial Finance Ministry note on 2G spectrum allocation that led to the stand-off between Mukherjee and Chidambaram was actually released in response to a Right to Information query, and not once but thrice this year. People close to Mukherjee say that he minced no words while putting the PM’s Principal Secretary TKA Nair—re-designated as Advisor to the PM after Pulok Chatterjee was appointed as his replacement—in the dock for stoking trouble for the Government by setting one minister against another. Mukherjee is said to have directly given Nair a dressing down when they met in New York for not consulting the Finance Ministry before approving the troublesome note’s release.
Some in the Congress believe that Mukherjee could speak out so bluntly because he has nothing to lose or gain any more, but to others, the party stalwart’s ability to do so emanates from the critical position he occupies in the ruling alliance as well as in the party. The United Progressive Alliance’s troubleshooter for all seasons and arguably the governing alliance’s most seasoned and politically savvy leader, Pranab Mukherjee heads most of the Centre’s Groups of Ministers, and is the one expected to rescue the UPA every time it gets into trouble—whether it is the issue of Telangana or the Congress’ turbulent relationship with the DMK or Trinamool Congress.
Mukherjee is seen as the person who knows, much more than anyone else in the party, exactly how the system works, from party politics to statecraft. Among many of his qualities, the one that no one forgets to mention is his elephantine memory. This, he uses quite frequently, often to trounce an opponent but sometimes to resolve knotty political issues as well. “Dada makes use of case references so astutely in meetings and otherwise that in many instances, these alone secure victory for him. He always has parallels from history,” says a senior Left leader who has participated in a series of meetings with Mukherjee during the UPA’s first tenure. “Making references of past cases is one of the attributes of a very good lawyer. In that sense, in fact, the top lawyers who appear to be dominating the Government [read Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khursheed] are no match for him.”
It takes long years of experience to turn memory into something as formidable as Pranabda has done. His parliamentary career began back in 1969, when he was elected for the first time to the Rajya Sabha as a Congressman. Thereafter, he was re-elected in 1975, 1981, 1993 and 1999. In 2004, he was elected to the Lok Sabha for his first time—an achievement he repeated in 2009. Equally wide-ranging has been his career in the party.
Mukherjee was very close to Indira Gandhi, the late PM who recognised his acumen as a politician quite early. He was brought in as a deputy minister in 1973, and after she returned to power in 1980, Mukherjee was made a minister with independent charge of commerce. Two years later, in 1982, he became India’s Finance Minister. In 1982, 1983 and 1984, he presented three consecutive Union Budgets that prompted New York-based EuroMoney magazine to rate him as ‘one of the most innovative finance ministers of the world’ at the time.
So meteoric was Mukherjee’s rise that Indira Gandhi decreed that he was functionally her deputy. When she was on overseas trips, he would chair Cabinet meetings and run the show in her absence. Most political players of that era have moved on, retired or passed away. Pranabda is the one person who has survived and flourished.
Not that he has always played his cards well. His big historic blunder was one he committed after Indira’s assassination. Miscalculating his position, he displayed a prime ministerial ambition that Rajiv Gandhi got wind of. The relationship between the two did not take long to sour, and Mukherjee was virtually shunted out of the Congress in 1986. The next year, he even tried to make a political comeback by launching the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, but his party did not win a single seat in the West Bengal Assembly polls of 1987. That, however, remains a sole aberration in an otherwise stable career dedicated to the Congress, a fact that helped him patch up with Rajiv Gandhi in 1988.
Since then, from all accounts, Mukherjee has not wavered in his loyalty to the Gandhi family. Yet, some argue that he never shook off the shadow of his 1984 error, and it returned to haunt him in 2004, when the UPA Government was assuming charge with the external support of the Left. “Despite originally being slated to become Home Minister, he was given the Defence portfolio primarily to prevent him from challenging Manmohan Singh’s leadership. This was largely because he had laid bare his prime ministerial ambitions,” says the CWC member on condition of anonymity.
But within a short span, Mukherjee proved himself vital to the functioning of the Government and its management of allies. In Congress affairs, too, his memory and political instinct proved so effective that he could not be ignored for long. Soon, he became the UPA’s chief troubleshooter, gaining stature within the party and shifting closer to Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Through his acumen and hard work—he works 12-hour days routinely—he now became almost indispensable to the Gandhi family. It’s known that he can handle fellow Congressmen better than either Manmohan Singh or Chidambaram (or anyone else in the party).
During UPA-I’s tenure, Mukherjee was described in party circles as the ‘head clerk’ of the Government; now, under UPA-II, he is dubbed a ‘super cabinet secretary’. This attainment of eminence in his greying years is reflected in other ways as well. Earlier, Congress leaders were heard cracking jokes about his Bengali accent. Now he is seen to have aligned himself with the party’s fortunes so well that people would rather strain their ears to listen to him.
On every point of difference with Manmohan Singh or Chidambaram, Mukherjee’s stand has always been in sync with the party’s views in aggregate, whether it’s economic or foreign policy. Many in the party also feel that the Finance Minister has successfully crafted an image for himself that allows him this leeway. Mukherjee is seen as a social democrat, firmly rooted in a Nehruvian past, in contrast to Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram, who are seen as reformers more interested in economic liberalisation than upholding whatever is left of the Nehruvian policy framework .
That, coupled with his loyalty to the Gandhi family, has paid off well for him. As Finance Minister, it is well known, Mukherjee was not the top choice of the PM, who had reportedly fixed his mind on Montek Singh Ahluwalia. It was the Congress High Command that threw its weight behind Mukherjee when the Cabinet was being constituted in the summer of 2009, leaving Ahluwalia where he was—in the Planning Commission. The Prime Minister had some reservations about this, sources say, but he had little choice but to accept the party’s decision.
That appointment set the stage for what some believe was inevitable: a feud within the Government over control of crucial policy levers. Chidambaram, who has his own ambitions, only inflamed an already tense set of equations within the party by entering the fray. So, what were hidden differences earlier are now erupting as bitter skirmishes with ever greater frequency, to the party’s chagrin.
Just over a month ago, Mukherjee and Chidambaram had differed seriously over the way the Government should handle the anti-corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare. Mukherjee exercised restraint at first, but once the situation started spinning out of control, he let himself go. The Cabinet appeared at war with itself even then, but it somehow did not assume the proportions that the one sparked off by the 2G note has.
Those close to Mukherjee claim that the 2G note affair, in which the Finance Minister was pitted against both the PM and Home Minister, could not have been handled more astutely. After all, nobody can find fault with what Mukherjee said. No less could have been expected of someone as consummate a practitioner of political statecraft as the old fox of Bengal who’s seen it all in a career spanning several decades.
And yet, what irked Chidambaram loyalists most was not what Mukherjee said, but what he did not say. Not even once, for example, did the Finance Minister hint of giving a clean chit to the Home Minister. All through the show, Mukherjee constantly referred to Chidambaram as a valued colleague and pillar of strength to the Government.
It’s not over yet. These are testing times for Mukherjee, the Gandhi family, the party, and the UPA. Signs of fatigue have started showing up in the Government led by Manmohan Singh, and there seems no clear-cut plan to reinvigorate the incumbent regime or replace it with a new one. As Pranabda performs his annual puja at his native village in West Bengal, many Congressmen see his story as only just beginning.