Book Review

Parliament: A political institution and not merely a debating club

Shubhabrata Bhattacharya reviews The Dramatic Decade, the first of a trilogy penned by Pranab Mukherjee

THE genesis of the United Front (multi-party alliance) politics in India and the strategy to successfully manage the dialectic associated with such eventuality is perhaps the core of the first volume of political biography penned by the Chanakya of modern India, Pranab Mukherjee. It is a chronicle written by an active participant in the events of a period which would serve as a watershed in the history of democracy in India. It is a must-read for students of politics and practitioners of ethical governance.

Dedicated “to the millions of political activists who have protected and nurtured democracy in India”, the book upholds the supremacy of the political class. It underscores that Parliament is “a political institution and not merely a debating club”. The Rashtrapati as author has also subtly emphasised that numbers in the Rajya Sabha should not be misused to filibuster the ruling party, which enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha courtesy of a direct mandate .

The volume released in the second year of his presidency, confines itself to his early years and dwells on momentous developments in the late 1960s, the dramatic 1970s and ends with the setting in of the decade of the 1980s. It profiles the fall and rise of the Congress, pre- and post-1977 elections. It gives an authentic narration of the reasons for the failure of the Janata Party experiment.

There are many versions about Pranab Mukherjee and his “Machiavellian ways”. Though he has not touched 1984 in this volume, it may be worthwhile to recall that it was alleged that he had “conspired” to be the successor to Indira Gandhi. It was repeatedly said in the UPA days that Sonia Gandhi could not “trust” him. Those who subscribe to these views will do well to read the Prologue to this volume. Recalling the values he imbibed from his freedom-fighter father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee (who was a District Congress Committee president in rural Bengal when India attained Independence), Pranab Mukherjee writes:

“Father taught us the value of self-respect….in 1978 when the Congress split under Indira Gandhi, he told me: ‘I hope you will not do anything which will make me ashamed of you. It is when you stand by a person in his or her hour of crisis that you reveal your own humanity. Do not do anything that will dishonour your forefathers’ memory.’ His meaning was clear, and I didn’t, then or later, waver from my loyalty to Indira Gandhi.”

Chronicling the developments leading to the birth of the Congress(I) on January 2, 1978, he traces the process of “de-Indiraization” which was unleashed by the same people who sang Hallelujah in the days of the Emergency and became turncoats when the Congress was defeated in 1977. “Sycophants of yesterday turned rebels of today,” Mukherjee comments.

The role played by the “Thursday Club” and the inability of most of the senior organisational leaders to fathom the feelings of the ordinary Congress worker in the days after the 1977 debacle have been vividly recorded. He openly acknowledges the role of Sanjay Gandhi and writes, “Sanjay Gandhi’s boys became the cornerstone of our new movement.”

Under Indira Gandhi’s instructions the resolution setting up the Congress(I) was handwritten by Mukherjee. He was entrusted several organisational tasks by Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi in the days following the Congress split. Mukherjee, who was Minister for Revenue & Banking prior to the 1977 defeat, was entrusted with the duties of the Treasurer of the Congress (I) in 1978—he held that position till he became a minister again and handed over the party treasury to Sitaram Kesari in 1980.

Though he lost the Lok Sabha election in 1980, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi inducted him as a Cabinet Minister when Congress rule returned. He was made Leader of the Congress(I) in the Rajya Sabha (Leader of the House) in January 1980 and served in that capacity till end-December 1984—a tenure till then superseded only by Govind Ballabh Pant. (Later, Dr Manmohan Singh’s 10-year tenure, 2004-2014 overran this record. Mukherjee also served as Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha, 2004-2012.) Though he does not mention this in his book, Indira Gandhi appointed him Chairman of the Political Affairs Committee to preside over this crucial body in her absence—other members were R Venkataraman, PV Narasimha Rao and ND Tiwari. It will be interesting to read what Mukherjee has to say about these years, perhaps in the second volume of his trilogy.

The book is perhaps the first tome written in modern India (and perhaps anywhere in the world) wherein a serving President of the Republic has delved into his own experience in bringing into sharp relief the sanctity of the oath of office and secrecy which ministers take. While one stalwart after another betrayed Indira Gandhi before the Shah Commission, set up by the Janata Party government (including Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who proposed and drafted the Emergency document on June 25, 1975) Mukherjee faced the onslaught. He was prosecuted by the Commission. The stand taken by Mukherjee that he could not divulge details of actions taken by him as minister of the Union, being bound by the oath of office and secrecy, was subsequently adopted by Indira Gandhi before Justice JC Shah. The Delhi High Court upheld Mukherjee’s constitutional argument and till date the verdict of Justice MK Chawla in the matter prevails.

Mukherjee recalls that the core of the Congress strategy of fighting back, as enunciated in the AICC resolution adopted at the time of the split in January 1978 was “organising dissent and resistance”. The year saw the Janata Party plunge itself into a vortex due to the inner contradictions caused by the individual ambition of the Morarji Desai-Charan Singh-Jagjivan Ram troika and the dialectic of the constituent parties who had cobbled together the Janata Party in May 1977. The inner contradictions and infighting in the Janata regime are vividly recorded in the volume.
The election of Indira Gandhi from Chikmagalur; her expulsion from the Lok Sabha; the upsurge in the morale of the Congress workers who effectively participated in the “Jail-Bharo” movement have all been vividly recorded. Mukherjee writes:

“An eventful 1978 came to an end. It had started uncertainly for us ….but ended with hope and renewed strength…Under (Indira Gandhi’s)inspiring leadership, it took Congress workers just a year to regain courage, conviction and confidence in the future. The non-performing conglomeration known as the Janata Party started counting its days.”

The volume records the irony that, just as Indira Gandhi finished her speech at a Congress(I) convention in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in July 1979, the news of Morarji Desai resigning as Prime Minister in New Delhi reached her. She flew back to the national capital. Thereafter her stewardship and Sanjay Gandhi’s backroom manoeuvres brought achchhe din for the Congress. (Sanjay Gandhi’s meetings with Raj Narain played a pivotal role in the dismantling of the Janata regime and set in motion the fragility of the subsequent Charan Singh regime which paved the way for Indira Gandhi’s triumphant return to power through the ballot box.)

Mukherjee was asked by the mother-son duo not to contest the Lok Sabha elections. He went to his native Bolpur but lost. After the results he received a summons from New Delhi and rushed to 12 Willingdon Crescent, which had been the Nehru-Gandhi home in the Janata days. He records his post-poll meeting with Indira Gandhi thus:

“Sanjay Gandhi told me she had been upset ever since she heard of my defeat, and she made her displeasure evident when I met her. I was unambiguously chastised…. (he kept standing all the while). I could do nothing but stand there till she calmed down. Then she sent me home with a basket of fruit.”

Despite negative media reports and speculation which suggested that his days were “over”, Mukherjee was sworn in as a Cabinet Minister when Indira Gandhi returned to power. And subsequently he was asked to head the ruling party in the Rajya Sabha—a daunting task as the Congress(I) had only 69 seats in a House of 244. The volume records the dexterity with which he handled the numbers game. So much so that by March 27, 1980, by managing to induce Congress(U) members to join the Congress(I) fold and by managing the support of Independents and other friendly forces, Leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee had managed to put the ruling party in a comfortable position in the Rajya Sabha and thwart the trouble which the ruling party faces even today in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) despite enjoying the clear mandate of the people in the House of the People (Lok Sabha).

Thus the political manager who steered the two UPA regimes through stormy days was not new to the game—he had perfected the rules of the game in his younger days. And who else but Indira Gandhi had seen the ability in him, as the manager of contradictions and the master of dialectic. A little-known fact that emerges in the volume is that Mukherjee started his political career not in the comfort of the Indian National Congress. In the turmoil of the 1960s, when a sizeable number of senior Congressmen in West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan had left the Congress and formed the Bharatiya Kranti Dal. Mukherjee’s mentor, Ajoy Mukherjee (the first non-Congress Chief Minister of West Bengal), was one of them. The Bengal unit was called Bangla Congress. In 1969, Mukherjee came to the Rajya Sabha as a Bangla Congress MP, elected in the process of United Front politics in his State. Later, he caught the attention of Indira Gandhi during a House debate and the rise and rise of India’s modern-day Chanakya began.

The volume records the chronology of events that led to the birth of Bangladesh—Mukherjee has been modest in mentioning the role he played in the events. The present regime in Dhaka, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s daughter, Hasina Wajed, has acknowledged his contribution by honouring him when he was a Union minister some years back.

THE volume also provides a vivid analysis of the Golak Nath case and the subsequent Keshavananda Bharati case judgment as also the judgments in the Privy Purses case and the bank nationalisation case. The genesis of the judiciary versus executive stand-off has been chronicled. He writes:

“The sum total of this face-off was that while the State always had the larger national interest in mind, the courts always chose the rights of individuals above all else. While history remains confined to books, the impact of those years is still being felt.”

Mukherjee’s observations on functioning of Parliament merit attention. The quote below will have relevance in all times to come:

“The House is a political institution, not merely a debating club. It has to transact the business of the nation initiated, and be guided by prevailing political forces. The Rajya Sabha has to play a balanced role in transacting business. It was not a secondary chamber, but at the same time it could not take advantage of the numerical position of a party to play an obstructionist role against the wishes of the ruling party, which had come to power with the mandate of the people. So, the handling of a delicate situation by maintaining a balance required political judgement, not always available with persons otherwise eminent and competent.”

Mukherjee is categorical on the choice of candidates for the offices of President and Vice-President and presiding officers in legislatures:

“I am of the view that offices such as those of the President and Vice- President should not be held by people other than politicians…. In India presiding officers are elected with the support of political parties and, as such, one cannot expect them to be free of political inclination altogether. Though they must strive to remain neutral, their neutrality cannot be stretched to a ridiculous extent.”

Mukherjee is a village boy; educated in his native Bolpur district of West Bengal, he came to Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the age of 21 for his postgraduate studies and achieved his degree as a “private student” (not enrolled in a college). The easy bonhomie that has developed between him and the “chaiwallah” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, therefore, is not difficult to fathom. One hopes the lessons in good governance which emerge from a close reading of the book published by Rupa and distributed by the modern paradigm of Amazon will go down well and strengthen the roots of Indian democracy.

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