I felt that while Dr Singh might not have been as aggressive as Pranab in voicing his opinions
Pranab’s personal loyalty towards any political leader began and ended with Indira Gandhi. After Indira, Pranab served the Congress but not any individual leader. Though he felt that her taking over would be beneficial for the party, it was not due to a sense of any personal loyalty towards her. Sonia must have had a strong intuition about it. But unlike Rajiv, she did not try to push Pranab to the periphery. Unlike Rajiv, she did not have the numbers either. When Sonia assumed leadership of the Congress after the general elections in 1998, the Congress tally in the Lok Sabha had come down to 141 seats. Even in 2004, though the Congress became the single largest party by winning 145 seats, Sonia perhaps needed every political mind within the Congress to stitch the alliance and keep it going. She was a pragmatic politician.
Pranab felt that Sonia was intelligent, hardworking and keen to learn. Once he told me that unlike many political leaders, her biggest strength was that she knew and recognised her weaknesses and was willing to work hard to overcome them. She knew that she lacked political experience but worked hard to understand the complexities of Indian politics and society. For this, she not only depended on her political colleagues, but actively sought guidance from academicians, subject-experts and social activists. Pranab shared anecdotes with Sonia from the time Indira was in power, and discussed their approach to challenging political and governance matters. Another quality of Sonia’s that Pranab noticed was her ability to listen. She delegated work and made various committees. On any issue, she would first listen to the viewpoints of the members and then decide. Sometimes, she would change her mind even after a decision was taken — a tendency which irked Pranab at times. But, on occasions, he wrote in his diaries, that it also showed her lack of rigidity. Pranab’s earlier fear of Sonia relying too heavily on a coterie due to her lack of experience turned out to be unfounded. As per Pranab, Sonia had her close advisers but she did not follow anyone’s advice blindly. He once told me that the Gandhis (Sonia and her children) do not trust anyone completely except each other. Given their experiences in life, perhaps, it is understandable. Pranab and Sonia formed their own equation. Pranab had strong views on issues, and he did not hesitate to express those ‘firmly’ and ‘frankly’ — two words he often used in his diaries—during internal meetings. He did so during Indira’s time as well. Indira modified her views many times after listening to Pranab’s arguments. When she didn’t, she would tell Pranab, ‘You said what you had to say. Now go and do what I am telling you.’ Once a decision was taken, even when it was contrary to his own opinion, Pranab did his best to implement it as per the decided party line. He accepted that Sonia was the boss and the final decisions on matters related to the party and the coalition were hers.
Many people have speculated that Pranab perhaps resented working under a person (Dr Manmohan Singh) whom he had appointed as the Reserve Bank of India governor way back in 1982, during his tenure as the finance minister. I don’t think that was an issue. Pranab had once told me that in the Westminster system of governance, the PM is first among equals. Though the buck finally stops with the PM, the power and responsibility lie collectively with the Cabinet. He confided that he would have rather worked under Dr Singh than anyone else in the party. The simple reason for this was the exemplary courtesy shown by Dr Singh to Pranab, and the independence he was given to function throughout their long period of association. Pranab stated in his book, ‘I say this out of personal experience of the Prime Ministers I have worked with — Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao — I got the maximum autonomy when I worked with Manmohan Singh.”
Contrary to what many people believe, Dr Singh was no weakling. He showed determination and nerves of steel when he insisted on going ahead with the nuclear deal despite strong opposition from one of the most important coalition partners, even with their eventual withdrawal of support. Going through Pranab’s diaries and from whatever conversation I have had with him, I felt that while Dr Singh might not have been as aggressive as Pranab in voicing his opinions, he definitely had views of his own and pushed them through whenever necessary. I also read that Dr Singh shared with Pranab his unhappiness with some of his Cabinet colleagues, and occasionally even about the Congress President. Pranab’s general advice to him was to discuss these issues with the persons concerned and the Congress President ‘frankly and firmly’. On occasions, Dr Singh was even ready to quit and Sonia Gandhi had to pacify him.
As I went through Pranab’s diaries, I discovered numerous instances of sparks flying, heated arguments and growing distances for a period. However, after a while, things seemed to be back to normal. With regard to his association with Dr Singh and Sonia, Pranab mentioned to me multiple times that it wasn’t necessary for them to always be in agreement. He often said, ‘You do not need to agree on everything every time.’ During the course of working together for so many years under such high-pressure conditions, there were bound to be differences. There was nothing unusual about it. But differences do not mean conflict, he clarified. Most importantly, they knew how to handle the differences.
Excerpted with permission of the publishers from Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers, by Sharmistha Mukherjee
Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers
By Sharmistha Mukherjee
pp. 368; Rs 795