Pranab Mukherjee contested the 1980 Lok Sabha elections much against the wishes of Indira Gandhi who gave him a “vociferous dressing down” for an “interminable span of time” after his defeat but he made a dramatic entry into the Union Cabinet despite the loss.
Such was the faith in him that the late Prime Minister Gandhi also made him the Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha over the claims of other senior contenders including the late AP Sharma.
Now President, Mukherjee trashes as rumours stemming from “fertile imaginations” that he was included in the Cabinet because Indira Gandhi wanted to have a team of 22, an astrologically auspicious number, after Bhagawat Jha Azad had refused to be sworn in.
Mukherjee recollects all these events of the days when Indira Gandhi returned to power in January, 1980 in his just -released book, “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years” brought out by Rupa Publications.
“Indira Gandhi headed into the 1980 elections strong and confident as ever. While I was all for choosing core and loyal Congressmen to contest, Indira Gandhi advised me to ‘choose people who could run the government’–so confident was she of her electoral success.
“She had strongly advised me against contesting the Lok Sabha elections in 1980, but gave in at my insistence. I contested the election from Bolpur constituency, and was defeated by a margin of 68,629 votes… The decisive vote demoralised me.”
Mukherjee writes in the book that his wife Geeta had already left for Delhi when the results came out and she called on the same day asking him to come back to Delhi as Gandhi wanted to meet him.
“I returned to Delhi by the evening flight and went straight to Willingdon Crescent to meet Indira Gandhi. It would not be an understatement to say that she was unhappy about my insistence to contest the election.”
He says Sanjay Gandhi told him that she had been upset ever since she had heard of his defeat, and she made her displeasure evident when he met her.
“I was unambiguously chastised. It was about 9 PM and Indira Gandhi was sitting in the dining room at one end of the long dining table. She had a bad cold and was soaking her feet in a tub of warm water.
“Standing at the other end of the dining table, I received a vociferous dressing-down for what seemed to be an interminable span of time. I was rebuked for taking the ill-advised decision of contesting from Bolpur, against her advice, and was told that such imprudent decisions nullified all my other hard work,” he recollects of that evening encounter with Gandhi.
He says he could do nothing but stand there till she calmed down and sent him home with a basket of fruit.
The media was rife with speculation about the proposed Cabinet and no one mentioned Mukherjee’s name because everyone had taken it for granted that his defeat would leave him out of the government.
There were supporters of Barkat Gani Khan Choudhury who seemed to rather enjoy Mukherjee’s predicament while his own supporters were lobbying for him.
Sanjay Gandhi called him and told him that he was sorry to know that Mukherjee was upset about the possibility of his non-inclusion in the government.
“I told him he was incorrectly informed because, frankly, I did not mull over that matter at all after my defeat and that I knew it would be quite embarrassing to approach for my inclusion in the government.
“To this, Sanjay Gandhi told me, ‘it was already decided to include you in the government with the Cabinet rank as Commerce Minister.’ But he had no idea whether I would be among the first lot to be sworn in or the second. He asked me to speak to Indira Gandhi. I told him I didn’t think it appropriate to speak to her on this matter.”
On the morning of January 14, the date fixed for the swearing in ceremony, newspapers were agog with speculation. At about 9.30 AM, Mukherjee received a call from RK Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s aide requesting him to be at Rashtrapati Bhavan by 11 AM. He was told not to wait for any message or call from the Cabinet Secretariat.
“I drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan. When I reached the Ashoka Hall there was no seat for me in the row of ministers to be sworn in. I looked at Indira Gandhi, who immediately realised that something was amiss.”
He says Dhawan came up to him and asked him to wait. He went to the Cabinet Secretary and then consulted the President’s Secretary only to discover that in the letter recommending the names of ministers to be appointed his name had been handwritten, not typed.
“The President’s Secretariat had inadvertently missed it as a consequence. Naturally, no seat had been earmarked for me. Indira Gandhi immediately wrote another letter by hand and got it delivered to the President’s Secretary.
“I was asked to sit between R Venkataraman and PV Narasimha Rao. The swearing in papers were handed over to me but, not being in possession of the list of ministers, I did not know my portfolio. I asked PV Narasimha Rao and R Venkataraman but they told me they were not privy to any details, except their respective portfolios.”
He recollects that Indira Gandhi was sworn in first followed by Kamalapati Tripathi and the rest were called out alphabetically.
A Chandigarh newspaper speculated that Mukherjee was included in the last minute as rumours had it that Indira Gandhi wanted to have a team of 22, an astrologically auspicious number and since Azad had refused to be sworn in, I was included.
“Rumours stemming from fertile imaginations indeed, since I had already explained the sequence leading to my inclusion,” says Mukherjee.