When Pranab Mukherjee was denied cabined berth by PM Rajiv Gandhi: President’s memoirs


President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs ‘The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996’ continues to stir the pot – rather ruffle feathers within the Congress party, now in Opposition in Parliament.

One of the chapters in his book is on the Bhopal Tragedy of 1984 and events related to it. Former Congress stalwart Mukherjee writes that a day after the tragedy happened at the Union Carbide India plant on December 2, the Congress government actively considered a proposal to nationalise the company. He also reveals the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi scheduled an ‘urgent meeting’ of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs on the subject.

Discloses Mukherjee: “On 3 December, I got a message while campaigning [for the general elections] in Orissa. ‘Come back to Delhi immediately…”

Rajiv Gandhi was also campaigning in Madhya Pradesh, but he too returned to the capital along with the MP Chief Minister Arjun Singh and Vasant Sathe, the then Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers.

President Mukherjee and Gandhi were the only members of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs present in Delhi at the time.

“From the tenor of the talks, it appeared that some thinking had crystallised on the future course of action. Perhaps the proposal to nationalise Union Carbide India had already informally been discussed,” Mukherjee has written. “Union Carbide is a big multinational. Nationalising it would be compared with the nationalisation of Coca-Cola and seen as a mistake … (it) will discourage future investments into India. This will be a huge setback.”

The general elections had already been announced following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And Mukherjee pointed out that it would be imprudent for a caretaker government to take a major policy decision. “The government is expected to take only routine decisions. The Congress will win this election hands down. Why vitiate the election process?” he wondered in his memoirs.

Responding to Mukherjee’s suggestion, Rajiv Gandhi said, “I can feel it. There is a tremendous sympathy wave because of Indiraji. We will win.”

As a matter of fact, the Congress swept the polls by winning 404 seats in the Lok Sabha just 29 days after that Cabinet Committee meeting. But Mukherjee did not get a berth in the Cabinet.

“Being dropped from Rajiv’s cabinet was not even peripherally in my mind. As it happened, PV Narasimha Rao, too, was on tenterhooks, calling me several times to check if I had received a call,” a “shell-shocked and flabbergasted” Mukherjee recalled in his book.