For someone with a heavy penchant for the word ‘drama’, Pranab Mukherjee – a long time Congress veteran, former cabinet minister and the current President of India – is surely too steadfast to be deemed dramatic himself. The umbilical cord that tied him to India’s only woman Prime Minister, the late Indira Gandhi, has still not been severed, even thirty long years after her brutal assassination, and continues to exert a pull that appears to be more blinding than strengthening in hindsight.
Out with the first of a three-volume autobiography, Mukherjee has once again reinstated his unwavering faith in and loyalty towards the phenomenon that was/is Indira Gandhi. In The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, Mukherjee, as he tries to sketch the turbulent 1970s that charted the rise, fall and re-rise of Indira, not only seeks to absolve the ‘charismatic’ leader of any culpability as well as responsibility for the imposition of Emergency in June 1975, he, in fact, actively attempts to salvage the two years of gross fundamental rights breach by painting it in a much softer light.
So much so that a close reading of The Dramatic Decade yields significant parallels with the months leading up to the general election of 2014, when the Congress suffered the worst-ever defeat in the Lok Sabha. But before that, this book-length obeisance to Indira Gandhi, her raw dynastic magnetism (at least in Mukherjee’s eyes) as well as her socialistic conscience (that oversaw crucial legislative moves such as more robust taxation policy, coming down heavily on tax offenders, bank nationalisation as well as rural credit schemes) is something that both obfuscates and irradiates the years that made and unmade the woman with the second-longest stint as a Prime Minister of India.
Mukherjee’s account, though seemingly matter-of-fact, is tethered to the old centre of legitimacy within Congress – the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and its strongest vortex of longstanding power, Indira Gandhi. From the outset, where Mukherjee barely mentions his travelling five kilometres everyday to reach his school in an obscure village in West Bengal, to the time when the Liberation War of Bangladesh gave Indira a moral and revolutionary command on India like never before, his role is that of an observer, who wants to hide his keen sense of what’s to come under a cloak of limiting loyalty. Pranab Mukherjee, who rose from a small-time party member in West Bengal unit of the Indian National Congress to a Minister of State with independent charge looking after Banking and Revenue sector when Indira was Prime Minister clearly felt an Oedipal pull towards the all-powerful but equally cornered and vulnerable matriarch in Indira.
The posthumous awe that Gandhi exerts on Mukherjee is evident in every chapter of this haphazardly designed book, perhaps aimed at timing it well with the almost-demise of Gandhi family now, with Sonia at its helm. The parallels are oh-too-obvious to ignore, but I will go there in a bit. A classic example of the filial bond that Mukherjee feels towards Indira can be found in the following description of her bold stand during the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh.
“Indira Gandhi took a tremendous risk by steadfastly supporting the liberation struggle of East Pakistan, particularly given the perils of getting involved in a major conflict with Pakistan and its supporters – the United States and China. She stood steadfast in the face of tremendous US pressure and posturing from China, proving that she was a leader with nerves of steel, fully equipped and able to carry on her father’s legacy. With single-minded nationalist diplomacy, Indira Gandhi took India to victory – a war won in spite of the odds – a unique moment in India’s military history.”
Given that the humiliation of losing 1962 Sino-Indian war was still an open wound, it is obvious that Mukherjee here is hiding behind nationalist rhetoric and a dutifulness to mouth what India really felt at that time. If anything, it was a sense of newfound muscularity and nationalist machismo after the emasculating defeat at the hands of the Chinese. Since military losses and gains are calibrated in standards of weak or strong power centres pulling the puppet strings of the elaborate pageantry that’s war, any war, even a decolonisation struggle when read from the comfort of hindsight, somehow it was India’s first and only woman Prime Minister who had delivered the nation to the doorstep of an elite, military, manly club of big players, global or regional.
Yet this eulogisation pales in the face of point blank exoneration of Indira Gandhi in the chapter titled ‘The Midnight Drama: Declaration of the Emergency.’ Notably, this is the chapter that has already been much talked about in the gossipy circuits of media that still feeds off the footnotes of the Gandhi family history and its strained, topsy-turvy relationship with other Congress leaders. Particularly interesting is the forcefulness with which Mukherjee blames Siddartha Shankar Ray, then Chief Minister of West Bengal, for whispering into Indira’s ears the possibility of declaring Emergency during the height of Jayaprakash Nayaran-led Janata movement. While it is highly probable that Mukherjee’s account is true and that SS Ray, whom the writer dubs an ‘exhibitionist’ showing off his ‘proximity’ to Indira at every opportunity, along with a host of other Congress luminaries, is indeed guilty of pushing Indira to make that draconian declaration as a counter-offensive to bring the JP movement under control, does it still exonerate the former Prime Minister of her own formidable share of sins?
It seems Mukherjee has little problem in casting this glaring contradiction and a blinding hole in his account to the trash bin of Indian political history. When he recounts how a number of Congress leaders, including of course SS Ray, recanted before the Justice Shah Commission, set up by the Janata Party government to look into the crimes committed during Emergency, even though most of them had flaunted, in closed quarters and in higher echelons of the press, being co-architects of Emergency, along with Indira, we can detect a palpable sense of betrayal that Mukherjee still feels towards them. Yet, how are we to understand a Prime Minister who confides in to her aide that she was ‘unaware of the constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of the state of Emergency’ even as she was writing to the then President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, seeking the implementation of the same? Is this political naiveté a concession India has habitually been making to the Gandhi dynasts, despite their repeated failings?
Isn’t Mukherjee doing exactly what Mani Shankar Aiyar, another steadfast Gandhi loyalist, has been ridiculed for doing, time and again? Where is, in Mukherjee’s narrative, the dilemma and the sheer uncertainty of a young minister who is witnessing a democracy in throes of near death? Where is the dichotomy and strain that one feels towards a revered leader when the latter goes inadvertently wrong? While we get how unwavering has been Mukherjee’s loyalty towards Indira – it is talking to us three decades after she was gunned down by her own bodyguards – we are left wondering if the president’s own proximity to the lodestar of Indian National Congress, whose face launched a thousand slogans but chiefly, the unforgettable, and utterly debilitating ‘India is Indira, Indira is India’, has not overtaken his ability to provide a neutral and untarnished account of the dramatic decade?
In a way, what Mukherjee thought of the ramshackle socialist congregation that was the JP movement, is an approximation of what he could possibly think of the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal in recent years. The Sanjay-Indira dynamics mirrored the Sonia-Rahul equation, as the powerful mothers blinded by their love of their incompetent sons. Is Mukherjee’s resurrection of Indira as a clean, saintly angel of nationalism, who was conned into Emergency by conniving Congressmen, a last straw that the dynasty will clutch on to in these trying times? Only times and the future volumes of this presidential memoir will tell.