Maybe politics wasn’t Rahul’s calling: Pranab Mukherjee remarked in book

New Delhi: Pranab Mukherjee was aghast at Rahul Gandhi’s ordinance-tearing act in 2013 and said he has all the “arrogance” of his Gandhi-Nehru lineage without their political acumen and that this episode was the “final nail in the coffin” for the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls the subsequent year, a book on the late president says.

“In Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers”, Sharmistha Mukherjee says that her father also told her that “maybe politics wasn’t Rahul’s calling” and his “lack of charisma and political understanding is creating a problem” besides his “frequent disappearing acts”.

On September 27, 2013, Rahul walked into a press conference held by former Cabinet minister and the party’s communication department chief Ajay Maken and vehemently trashed a proposed government ordinance calling it “complete nonsense”, adding that it should be torn. Then taking everyone by surprise, he tore a copy of the ordinance.

The ordinance aimed to bypass a Supreme Court order of immediate disqualification of convicted legislators, and instead proposed that they may continue as a member while an appeal in a higher court was pending.

Mukherjee served as India’s finance minister and subsequently became minister for External Affairs, Defence, Finance and Commerce. He was India’s 13th president (2012 to 2017). He died on August 31, 2020 at the age of 84.

Sharmistha says her father himself was against the ordinance and in principle agreed with Rahul.

“But he was aghast at the manner in which Rahul acted. I was the one who first broke the news to him. After a long time, I saw my father getting so angry! His face became red and he shouted, ‘Who does he (Rahul) think he is? He is not a member of the Cabinet. Who is he to publicly trash a decision of Cabinet’,” she writes.

“The Prime Minister is abroad. Does he even realize the implication of his actions and the effect it will have on Prime Minister and the government? What right does he have to humiliate the PM like this,” Mukherjee went on to tell his daughter.

Mukherjee also wrote about this incident in his diary. “…This is totally uncalled for. He has all the arrogance of his Gandhi-Nehru lineage without their political acumen.” Sharmistha says that much later, after she joined politics in 2014, she was discussing with her father the reasons behind the Congress’s disastrous performance that year. The Congress fell to an all-time low of 44 seats as the BJP under Narendra Modi stormed to power.

“He told me that, among other reasons, Rahul’s outburst was the final nail in the coffin for the Congress. ‘The party’s vice-president had shown such disdain for his own government publicly. Why should people vote for you again?’ he asked,” the book says.

Sharmistha also says that when she told her father that Rahul, according to party leaders, had tried his best within the party to not promulgate the ordinance, but no one had listened, he retorted: “Despite his many years in politics and his influential position within the party, if Rahul couldn’t persuade his colleagues without resorting to theatrics, then maybe politics wasn’t his calling.” In the book, Sharmistha, a former Congress spokesperson who quit politics in 2021, provides a glimpse into the illustrious life of her father through his father’s diary entries, personal stories narrated to her and her own research.

The book, published by Rupa Publications, says Pranab was also “critical of the coterie around Rahul, possibly based on feedback received from senior party leaders”.

“He (Mukherjee) advised Rahul to include both new and old leaders in his team. In this context, there was once a funny incident. One morning, during Pranab’s usual morning walk in the Mughal Gardens (now Amrit Udyan), Rahul came to see him. Pranab disliked any interruptions during his morning walks and puja. Nevertheless, he decided to meet him.

“It turned out that Rahul was actually scheduled to meet Pranab later in the evening, but his [Rahul’s] office mistakenly informed him that the meeting was in the morning. I came to know about the incident from one of the ADCs. When I asked my father, he commented sardonically, ‘If Rahul’s office can’t differentiate between ‘a.m.’ and ‘p.m.’, how do they hope to run the PMO one day,” the book quotes Mukherjee as saying.

After the Congress debacle in 2014 when it fell to an all-time low with just 44 seats, Rahul visited Mukherjee.

“Pranab found it surprising that Rahul gave his views on the election performance of the party in a most detached way, from a distance as an outsider as if he was not the face of the campaign and the main campaigner of the party,” the book, which will be launched on Mukherjee’s birth anniversary on December 11, says.

“Pranab felt that some of the comments made by Rahul reflected his political immaturity. He was also disappointed by Rahul’s frequent disappearing acts. Pranab believed that serious politics is a 24×7, 365-day job,” it says.

In another diary noting, Mukherjee wrote about Rahul’s absence at the flag-raising ceremony at the AICC on the party’s 130th Foundation Day on December 28, 2014 barely months after the Lok Sabha loss: “…I don’t know the reason but many such incidents happened. As he got everything so easily, he does not value it. Soniaji is bent upon making her son the successor but the young man’s lack of charisma and political understanding is creating a problem. Can he revive Congress? Can he inspire people? I do not know.”