Pranab Mukherjee would have made a good prime minister. That is my Wiccan assessment. He had the astuteness, the understanding of the game, and the political ruthlessness required for the job. Politicians from across the spectrum felt comfortable with him. The only one who did not was Sonia Gandhi. It wasn’t a new thing, of course. It went back to the time when Rajiv was at the helm, and perhaps even before that. Pranab Mukherjee was too polished a politician. Or maybe his ambition was too apparent. I think Rajiv and his wife were always a bit apprehensive with him around. He knew too much.
I was at Pranab’s house the day Indira died. Rajiv and Pranab were away in Bengal. Pranab’s family was home in their Jantar Mantar bungalow. The previous evening there had been anenjoyable at-home party to celebrate Pranab’s daughter, Munni’s(Sharmishtha) birthday. The day of October 31, 1984 began as a cold, crisp and lovely autumn morning. And then the news came. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Everything suddenly seemed unreal. Time stopped. Suvra, Pranab’s wife, phoned me to ask if I could drop by. Not many people were at their place – just a few from his immediate family and some members of staff. We gathered in the living room and there was a tense hush. I remember Pranab’s son, Abhijit, asking for a garland for Indira’s photograph, which sat atop the television in the living room. Nobody stirred. Suvra repeated the order to one of the retainers.
The Mukherjees always kept a lot of pictures of Indira around the house. Some on the walls, a few on tables and cabinets. He also kept a life-sized standing bronze Buddha in a corner of his living room. I think he told me once it was a special gift from a Buddhist nation. I felt if it were not being worshipped, it should not have been displayed in a household. This is one view I always hold. Call it superstition. The Buddha had renounced the world. His image should not adorn a family home. It is fine to keep a Buddha idol in an institution like a hospital, school, or office, but not to decoratea private residence.
After Indira, did Pranab expect to be the next prime minister? Maybe he did. Under the circumstances, it might have been the logical choice. I remember hearing from a close staff member that as soon as news of the assassination spread like wildfire, condolences started pouring in from around the world and simultaneously, Pranab began to receive congratulations over fax and phone as India’s next prime minister. This news must also have been conveyed to Rajiv. Within a short time, the anti-Pranab lobby had made their plans. By the end of that day, Rajiv had been nominated in his mother’s stead. Pranab himself seconded the motion vigorously. But I think if one looked closely, one could see the disappointment on his face. He had realised he was not destined for that chair.
Then came another strange blow. Rajiv dropped him from his cabinet of ministers. Pranab was now truly shocked but tried to take it in his stride. I remember him telling me one day when he was having a rough time with Rajiv, that Indira had died and left him a “zinda laash”, a “living corpse”. He would bristle at some of the barbs Rajiv threw his way as they walked the corridors of Parliament. He recalled them with a mixture of outrage and disbelief.
I believe one morning, as Rajiv, Pranab, and a few colleague swere walking to the Central Hall, Rajiv turned to Pranab and said, “Just look. A few days ago crowds of MPs would be following you. Today, there’s not one. What a change.”
This article has been published in DailyO by Ispita Roy Chakraverti