Former President Pranab Mukherjee expected to be chosen as Prime Minister on two occasions — first in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power, and later in 2012 ahead of the Presidential election, he writes in his latest book “Coalition Years: 1996-2012”. Mukherjee, a veteran Congress leader, also says that after Sonia Gandhi named Manmohan Singh as her choice for Prime Minister, he was actually reluctant to join the government as a cabinet minister under Singh, who had been his junior when he was Finance Minister under Indira Gandhi.
However, he rubbishes the perception that Manmohan Singh was an “accidental Prime Minister”. “A strong nationalist, a man of courage and conviction, Manmohan Singh was certainly not an ‘accidental Prime Minister’. I am convinced that the future will judge Manmohan Singh in a different light as (former Prime Minister) P.V. (Narasimha Rao) is assessed today,” Mukherjee says.
After Sonia Gandhi declined the UPA leaders’ proposal to become Prime Minister on May 18, 2004, “there was intense speculation in the party and the media about her choice”, Mukherjee writes. “Within the Congress party, the consensus was that the incumbent must be a political leader with experience in party affairs and administration… The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi declined,” the Congress stalwart writes. He says that this expectation was possibly based of the fact that “I had extensive experience in government while Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist Finance Minister”.
Finally, Sonia Gandhi named Manmohan Singh as her choice and he accepted this. “Some media commentators reported that I would not join the government because I could not work under Manmohan Singh, who had been my junior when I was the Finance Minister. The fact was that I was reluctant to join the government, and informed Sonia Gandhi accordingly,” Mukherjee says.
Speaking at the release of the book recently, Manmohan Singh said Mukherjee had every reason to feel that he was better qualified than him for the Prime Minister’s post. He also said that contrary to what people may say or write, the two had no serious differences or friction on any matter during the UPA era. Mukherjee elaborates that once he joined the government at Sonia Gandhi’s insistence, he enjoyed good rapport with Manmohan Singh who “seemed to depend” on him. “She (Sonia Gandhi) insisted that I should join the government since I would be vital to its functioning and also be of support to Dr. Singh. As it turned out, Dr. Singh would talk to me on all important issues and seemed to depend on me. We shared a good working relationship,” Mukherjee says.
The second occasion when Mukherjee expected he would be asked to head the government came just ahead of his nomination as the presidential candidate. After a meeting with Sonia Gandhi on June 2, 2012, when the Congress President discussed with him probable presidential candidates — including him — Mukherjee “returned with a vague impression that she (Sonia Gandhi) 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 that she had given this formulation a serious thought while on a holiday in the hills,” he writes.