What Pranab Da Thought About Sonia Gandhi

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.

A fascinating excerpt from Sharmistha Mukherjee’s Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers.

Strangely, I felt that he did not have any rancour against Sonia for not making him the PM, and definitely not against Dr Singh. Pranab had the ability to see an issue from the other person’s perspective.

During his presidential years, he told me that in the cut-throat world of politics, every one safeguards their interests first.

Sonia was simply safeguarding her own interests and that of her family’s, by choosing someone whom she trusted to not challenge her authority.

What followed was an interesting conversation that is still etched in my memory.

Me: Would you have challenged her authority?

Pranab: Whether I would or wouldn’t have is not the question. She probably felt that I would. She had the power to choose the PM. She did what she thought was right. What’s there to argue about it?

Me: But you would have made a better prime minister…

Pranab: That’s your subjective opinion. You think your father would have been a better PM. Manmohan Singh’s daughters would have an entirely different point of view. Rahul Gandhi would think that his father was the best prime minister ever. Sonia Gandhi would think that her husband was even better than Indira Gandhi. That’s not the way to evaluate.

Me: Who was the best prime minister in your opinion?

Pranab: Undoubtedly, Pt Nehru. He was a visionary, a statesman, builder of institutions, architect of modern India… No one can come near him.

Me: Not even Indira Gandhi?

Pranab: She had her strengths, but not a patch on her father.

Then he added with a mischievous smile, ‘But if the daughter was the father, the entire Kashmir would have been ours.’

Even if Pranab felt any hurt or disappointment for not becoming the PM, it was assuaged by none other than Dr Manmohan Singh.

Years later, when Pranab was no longer the president and Dr Singh was no longer the PM, at the book launch of Pranab’s book The Coalition Years, Dr Singh said, ‘He [Pranab] had every reason to feel a grievance that he was better qualified than I was to become the prime minister, but he also knew that I had no choice in the matter.’

His comment left the audience, which included Sonia and Rahul, in splits.

Dr Singh further described Pranab as the ‘most distinguished living parliamentarian and Congressman’. He went on to say, ‘[…] he is the greatest politician living in the country.’

That night, Pranab was as happy as a child. He expressed his admiration for the former PM, describing him as a gracious gentleman.

Sonia Gandhi did not make Pranab the PM, but she did give him the option to choose his ministry. After Dr Singh’s name was announced, I had the opportunity to meet Baba.

Curious about his upcoming role, I enquired about which ministry he would be assigned to.

With confidence, he responded that it would either be Home or External Affairs.

But he got neither Home nor External Affairs, and learnt about it at the swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan on 22 May 2004.

After the function, my mother, other family members and I returned home. Baba was to come back later on his own.

I vividly recall sitting in the bedroom with my mother when he entered, appearing somewhat bewildered.

‘They are giving me Defence now,’ he said, looking at me. ‘I don’t know anything about the ministry. How am I going to handle it?’ he added.

When I asked him what had happened, he just shrugged and went off to his home office where a number of visitors were waiting to meet him.

Many years later, I learnt from his diaries what had actually transpired.

On 20 May, two days before the swearing-in, he had to meet Sonia, Dr Singh and others regarding government formation and accommodating coalition partners.

Pranab worked out a formula for ministerial berths for the alliance partners, depending on the strength of their numbers in the Lok Sabha. It was further decided to keep the big four — Finance, Home, External Affairs and Defence — and some other ministries like Petroleum, HRD, I&B, etc, with the Congress.

After the meeting, Sonia asked Pranab to stay back. In Pranab’s own words, ‘She asked my preference of ministry. She said that she will accommodate me first and then others. I asked for Home or External Affairs indicating Home would be the first choice. She said she will give me my preference.’

But that changed within a day. Pranab noted in his diary that on 22 May, during the swearing-in ceremony in which he took oath after the PM, Dr Singh informed him that Sonia had had a change of heart and wanted him to hold the Defence portfolio instead of Home.

Pranab further wrote, ‘Home is a political ministry and a lot of work could have been done there. After the swearing-in, I asked Soniaji. She told me “Except you, I do not find anyone who can clear the mess at the Defence ministry.” So what could I say? I had no choice.’

I thought of another incident which took place three years later. In 2007, before the presidential election, there was speculation about Pranab’s name as a possible Congress candidate.

The Left parties had proposed his name to Sonia. Pranab was also keen.

Sonia met Pranab and told him that she would happily nominate him as the presidential candidate, on the condition that Pranab finds a replacement for himself.

She told him that he was indispensable for the government and in Parliament, and could not be spared.

Pranab might have felt flattered by the compliment but it did not serve his purpose. Sonia knew how to deal a blow gently.

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.

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.

Excerpted from Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers, by Sharmistha Mukherjee, with the kind permission from the publishers Rupa Publications India.

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