As late as June 2, 2012, less than two months before he took oath as the 13th President of India, Pranab Mukherjee had come away from a meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi with a “vague” impression that she may be in favour of Manmohan Singh as President and if that happened, she might choose him as Prime Minister.
This startling revelation is in Mukherjee’s new book, the third volume of his autobiography, “The Coalition Years, 1996-2012,” which was launched on Friday and will be part of the rich variegated backdrop for Express Adda on Saturday where he will be Chief Guest.
In that meeting in June, he writes, Sonia reminded him: “Pranabji, you are most eminently suited for the office but you should not forget the crucial role you are playing in the functioning of the government. Could you suggest a substitute?’”
“The meeting ended,” Mukherjee writes, “and I returned with a vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister. I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in the Kaushambi Hills.”
In sensing Gandhi’s reluctance, he also had past experience to go by. He recalled a time when he had lost his temper on agitating opposition MPs in the Lok Sabha despite his assurance to then Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj that he would answer her questions. As the matter got sorted out, Gandhi had commented: “This is why you can’t be President,” Mukherjee recalls in the book. On June 25, bidding him an emotional farewell at a CWC meet at 7 Race Course Road, Gandhi had said: “Along with that (missing him at CWC meetings), of course, I will miss some of his tantrums.”
Mukherjee cites the arrest of Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, on November 12, 2004, as one episode that best “exemplifies my temper.” The Shankaracharya had been arrested by Tamil Nadu police in connection with a case related to the murder of a temple manager. “It was a time when the entire country was celebrating Diwali. During the Cabinet meeting, I was extremely critical of the timing of the arrest and questioned if the basic tenets of secularism of the Indian state were confined to only Hindu monks and seers? Would the state machinery dare to arrest a Muslim cleric during Eid festivities? M K Narayanan, then Special Adviser to Prime Minister, agreed with me. I immediately issued instructions for the Shankaracharya to be released on bail.”
Having been acutely conscious of the dignity of his office as President, Mukherjee refrained from any public and direct criticism of the government. Writing on black money, though, he says that the “NDA government’s drive against black money and the subsequent demonetisation exercise to deal with this festering issue will have limited impact. These endeavours launched with great fanfare, just like L K Advani’s Jan Chetna yatra in 2011, will not be able to get to the root of the malaise. I have always believed that we must work with individual countries to recover the unaccounted wealth stashed away in their banks.” In a statement on November 8, 2016 at 9.45 pm, shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on demonetisation, as President of India, he “welcomed the bold step taken by the Government which will help unearth unaccounted money as well as counterfeit currency.”
He also writes about how he as, then External Affairs Minister sent visiting Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi home in his own official aircraft in the aftermath of 26/11. He writes of a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on that day: “As soon as I was ushered into Dr Singh’s office, he told me that Shivraj Patil had resigned and that Sonia Gandhi had suggested that I take over as home minister. He went on to say the he advised Mrs Gandhi against this as I was handling a war-like situation as the External Affairs Minister and that the ministry could not afford a change at this time. Hence it was decided that P Chidambaram would replace Shivraj Patil.”
Mukherjee, when he comes for Express Adda on Saturday is expected to open up on his life and times as one of India’s finest public figures. The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change.
At the Express Adda, he will be in conversation with The Indian Express’s National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra and Deputy Editor Seema Chishti.