Breaking Bad: Why the rumoured divorce between the Gandhis and Pranab Mukherjee is now finally done

The relationship had been fraying over the years. But with the Gandhis skipping Pranab Mukherjee's Bharat Ratna ceremony, the break is now final and out in the open.

 |  6-minute read |   11-08-2019
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The rumouredly cracked relationship between Pranab Mukherjee and the Gandhis, that was concealed under the paint of niceties, finally came to an end this week, in the dazzling hall of Rashtrapati Bhawan, when Pranab babu received the Bharat Ratna for his contribution to India, courtesy the Modi sarkar.

A relationship that was always apparently plagued with insecurities saw a trust deficit grow when Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of India in May 2014.

Contrary to expectations, Mukherjee, a die-hard Congress loyalist sitting in the chair of the President of India, gelled quite well with the BJP’s 'Hindutva Hriday Samrat' Narendra Modi. In the first one year of Modi as PM, the relationship between the head of the executive and the head of state turned out to be one of mutual respect and admiration, despite having very divergent political thinking — Modi has accepted on record that he would look up to Mukherjee for his advice on many critical issues. 

main_pranab-and-modi_081019084848.jpgContrary to expectations: President Pranab Mukherjee, a die-hard Congress loyalist, gelled well with PM Narendra Modi. (Photo: Reuters)

Mukherjee apparently taught the intricacies of Delhi politics to Modi, a newbie in the Lutyens power circle, in 2014. In 2017, Modi conceded, “I must accept, I consider myself lucky to have started my career in Delhi holding the finger of Pranab Da. Ye mere liye bohut bada samman raha.”

In an emotional address in 2017, a teary-eyed Modi likened Pranab da to his ‘father’. A rare gesture that was also an insight into the warmth the two shared.

But as the two went on to do business together, the Gandhis' trust deficit in Mukherjee seemed to intensify. It reached a point of no return when Pranab Babu, against the appeals and urging of many Congress leaders, including his daughter Sharmishtha Mukherjee, accepted an invitation to visit the RSS headquarters on June 7, 2018, and delivered a speech. But the pretences of “no love lost” were done away with this week — when the Congress top brass was severely economical with their attendance at the Bharat Ratna event.

Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi stayed away from the function.

main_pranab-receivin_081019084801.jpgGuess who's not there? (Photo: ANI)

In contrast, almost the entire union cabinet, including Modi and Shah, were in attendance, clapping as the octogenarian received his Bharat Ratna, wearing a traditional dhoti like a true Bengali.

The divorce is now finalised — and, to my mind, it is political suicide for the Congress in the perception bazaar where the party’s stocks are already in the red.

Family Comes First

It may not have been said as such, but communicated to the country in clear terms, that the Congress is less of a political outfit and more of a dynasty — a charge PM Modi has repeated enough times in enough rallies.

main_rahul-gandhi-so_081019084908.jpgIt's all about loving your family: The Congress simply gave legitimacy of Modi’s dynasty barb. (Photo: Reuters)

It would have been prudent and gracious for the Gandhis to attend the event and cheer for one of their own as he received the highest civilian award of India, albeit conferred by a BJP government. That would have also given them the high moral ground to claim that not only Mukherjee, but the ideals of the Congress have been recognised, as claimed in a tweet by Sharmishtha later. But by giving it a royal snub, the Congress gave legitimacy to Modi’s frequent barb of "Ma-bete ki sarkar".

To many watching, the point driven home was that the Congress does not value even its own unless s/he is from the ‘first family’. And if someone else values it, that is not acceptable to the Gandhis either.

The seasoned Ahmad Patel, one of the few rare Congressmen in attendance along with Shashi Tharoor, knew the intensity of the blunder caused by a simple absence. In the following days, as the Congress Working Committee (CWC) remained inconclusive over finding a ‘pilot’ for the party, it again went back to ‘urge’ Rahul Gandhi to ‘come back and lead’ on Saturday (August 10, 2019), finally settling on Sonia Gandhi as interim party president — highlighting the dynasty angle further.

Bengal Congress unhappy

No one will give sound bytes or tweet in frustration — but almost every senior member of the Bengal unit of the Congress party will tell you off the record how uncomfortable they are, given that the cadres now see the party as ‘anti-Bengal’.

main_pranab-mukherje_081019084938.jpgBengal's tallest leader: Cadres see a snub to Pranab da as a snub to the state. (Photo: Reuters)

Pranab Mukherjee was, and continues to be, the tallest Congress leader from Bengal.

His influence breaches party confines. So, even when a non-political son of Pranab Babu had to contest from Bengal, the CPI (M) either does not field candidates or chooses a weak one. During UPA-1 and UPA-2, Pranab babu was always seen to be Bengal’s candidate at the Centre, even by opposition parties within Bengal. Mukherjee is -known to never have refused any legitimate help to political adversaries from Bengal when he was the External Affairs Minister and later, Finance Minister in the two terms of the UPA. His official residence at Talkatora Road in Delhi would be buzzing, well past 1 AM every morning, with people from Bengal.

To snub him is to snub Bengal.

And this narrative now settles easily in the context of the fact that Pranab Babu, though the senior-most, was not made Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. A charge that Modi made innumerable times in the run-up to the 2014 Parliamentary elections suddenly achieves significance among Bengalis — many of whom feel a sense of victimhood at the hands of the Gandhis.

In the next two years, Bengal will be the nucleus of a political tamasha with the BJP jumping from two seats to 18 and the TMC losing 16 seats. The CPI (M) has been made redundant. The Congress, which traditionally isn’t a very significant player, could have hoped to gain some ground owing to Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, another Bengali, being made leader of the party in the Lok Sabha.

But Thursday, August 8, 2019, ensured this will not be the case.

By the evening, amid the dazzle of the Swarovskis, the aroma of fine Darjeeling tea (a personal favorite of Mukherjee's) and hushed exchanges, a decades-long strained marriage was finally — and silently — declared over.

Also read: Bias Ratna: Criticism of Modi govt's choice for India's greatest award betrays the pettiness in our political psyche

Writer

Anindya Banerjee Anindya Banerjee @aninbanerjee

The writer is a political journalist.

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