The President, Pranab Mukherjee, has just inaugurated the first book in the intended trilogy of his political career on his 79th birthday. ‘The Dramatic Decade – The Indira Gandhi Years’ is a page turner published by Rupa and predictably throws some light on the controversial Emergency years.
As per his account, the President would like us to believe that Indira Gandhi was naive about the provisions of the Constitution and did not know that Emergency could be imposed.
"Indira Gandhi told me subsequently that she was not even aware of the Constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of a state of Emergency on grounds of internal disturbance particularly since a state of Emergency had already been proclaimed as a consequence of Indo-Pak conflict in 1971."
While he writes about the well known bit about "suspension of fundamental rights ... large scale arrests of political leaders ... press censorship”, he surprisingly adds that Emergency had an upside; probably to balance out the account and not lambast the Gandhi a la Natwar Singh style.
He writes: “While there is no doubt that it brought with it some major positive changes – discipline in public life, a growing economy, controlled inflation, a reversed trade deficit for the first time, enhanced developmental expenditures and a crackdown on tax evasion and smuggling – it was perhaps an avoidable event.”
Despite enlisting some of these positive aspects, Pranab not just concludes that Emergency was preventable, but that “the Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure."
Interestingly, Mukherjee has also squarely blamed the then West Bengal Chief Minister for being an architect of the whole affair but later taking a U-turn on the matter and turning on Indira Gandhi instead.
“It is believed that Siddhartha Shankar Ray played an important role in the decision to declare the Emergency: it was his suggestion, and Indira Gandhi acted on it... . And, again not surprisingly, these very people took a sharp about-turn when the Shah Commission was set up to look into the Emergency ‘excesses’. Not only did they disown their involvement, they pinned all the blame on Indira Gandhi, pleading their own innocence. Siddhartha babu was no exception.”
Where Pranab Mukherjee comes out as a fair and square political commentator is in his observations of Jayaprakash Narayan. Though JP was an adversary throughout, the former Congressman bestows on him adequate praise.
“I did not know JP. I met him only once in 1974 at the Gandhi Peace Foundation along with C.M. Stephen... We talked about the Naxalite movement, and I was impressed by his personality and his genuine approach to this emotional and sensitive issue. I found him to be far above petty political games; he truly wanted to restore moral values in Indian politics.”
He continues: “Without JP, this movement would not have been so powerful; it would not have attained the dimension it did without JP.”
On his unwavering support to Indira Gandhi, Mukherjee credits his father for instilling in him strong moral values.
“Many years later, in 1978 when the Congress split under Indira Gandhi, he told me: ‘I hope you will not do anything that will make me ashamed of you. It is when you stand by a person in his or her hour of crisis that you reveal your own humanity....’ His meaning was clear, and I didn’t then or later, waver from my loyalty to Indira Gandhi.”
Pranab also recalls days of hardship when his father was in jail for long periods because of participating in agitations launched by Congress before Independence. He recounts how he told the police personnel who had come to confiscate their possessions that they could not hand over their 8 cows as they had eaten them!
“I, all of eight years then, said, ‘Actually, Father has been in jail for a long time. So, we sold the cows for some money to feed ourselves’.”
Actually, the Mukherjee family had been forewarned of the police party and had shifted their cattle and possessions to other families in the neighbourhood.
There are also some other softer and enjoyable anecdotes in the book. For example, Pranab reminiscences with fondness his childhood years and his free spirit.
“It could be said that between 1940 and 1945 I did not go to school, preferring instead a life of playing games, climbing trees or running along with grazing herds of cows.”
In 1946 however, when he was enrolled at the Kirinahar Shib Chandra High English School in Class V, which was 2.5 kms from his house, Pranab completed the journey to and fro barefoot through uneven terrain and ditches.
“During the rains, the entire area was several feet deep in water, I would take off my shirt and shorts and wade through the water wearing a gamccha (towel), changing back into my presentable, school-worthy attire once I reached higher ground.”
The President got the road paved only in 1971 when he became a minister.
The book also talks about the creation of Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi’s return to power, and the new challenges that the Congress faced.
While ‘The Dramatic Decade’ covers the period between 1969 and 1980, the President intends to deal with the period between 1980 and 1998 in Volume II, and the period between 1998 and 2012, which marked the end of his active political career, in Volume III.