I didn’t aspire to be PM: Pranab

President Pranab Mukherjee did not aspire to become interim Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination but such “false and spiteful” stories created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind that soured their relationship, his autobiography says.

Mukherjee appears to hold a group around Rajiv, which include Arun Nehru and Arun Singh and Vijay Dhar among others, for forcing him out of Union Cabinet and later from Congress in 1986.

“Many stories have been circulated that I aspired to be the interim Prime Minister, that I had staked claim and had to be persuaded otherwise. And that this created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind. These stories are completely false and spiteful,” Mukherjee writes in ‘The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996’.

What the President can now say about it was that Rajiv “made mistakes and so did I”. Rajiv “let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience,” he remembers.

Recalling the flight back to Delhi from Kolkata along with Rajiv Gandhi after hearing the news of Indira’s assassination, Mukherjee writes that Balram Jakhar, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Shyamlal Yadav, Uma Shankar Dikshit and Sheila Dikshit discussed the future course of action amongst themselves.

Mukherjee cited precedents that Gulzari Lal Nanda, the senior-most minister, became interim prime minister when Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri died but pointed out that those were natural deaths.

However, he writes, “This was an extraordinary situation when an incumbent Prime Minister had been assassinated. Apart from a political void, a lot of uncertainties, too, had been created.” It was decided on the flight decided that Mukherjee should request Rajiv to take over as Prime Minister to “meet the challenge posed by this extraordinary” situation.

“I took Rajiv to the rear of the aircraft and requested him to take over as Prime Minister. His immediate question to me was, ‘Do you think I can manage?’ Yes, I told him, we are all there to help you. You will have everyone’s support,”

When they landed in Delhi, Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswamy Rao told Mukherjee that he would have to take over, as Nanda had done in the past, but he told the officer about their decision.

Mukherjee also objected to a demand by section including Arun Nehru that Rajiv should be sworn in by Vice President R Venkitaraman even before President Gyani Zail Singh reaches Delhi, fearing that he may put obstacles to their plan. He felt it was unconstitutional and would have sent a wrong political message.

Mukherjee says his newspaper interview on continuation of economic policies of Indira government under Rajiv was portrayed as “presumptuous and unmindful” while not accompanying him during campaign was seen as “ignoring” the Prime Minister.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Jan 29, 2016)

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