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Volume XLIV, No.49

A Profile in Experience

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by G.S. Bhargava

In the run up to the 1996 general election when P.V.Narasimha Rao was trying for a second term as the Prime Minister, the prestigious Saturday Discussion Group at the India International Centre invited Pranab Mukerjee to speak on the Congress party’s election manifesto. Besides being the Foreign Minister he was also heading the party’s Election Campaign Committee. Answering a question on the party’s prospects, he began to recall in his characteristic political science pundit style that the Congress had won the 1985 general election with a thumping majority because it had taken place in the shadow of the national tragedy of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Again halfway through the 2001 general election, the young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been cruelly done to death, which brightened the party’s prospects in the constituencies that had gone to the polls in the aftermath. There was no possibility of such a pro-Congress wave now, he concluded with a straight face!

His subtle sense of humour evoked guffaws. Did he mean that Narasimha Rao, ageing and not being charismatic like his predecessors, could not help the party even if he were to fall a prey to an assassin’s bullet? Anybody’s guess!

More importantly, Pranab’s is a typical case of rising from the ranks. He opened his innings at the Centre as a Deputy Minister from 1973 to 1974 (October). Next was the higher rung on the ministerial ladder, Minister of State for Finance from October 1974 to December 1975, when the so-called internal Emergency had been on for about six months. In that month, he was further moved up to hold independent charge of the Department of Revenue and Banking within the Finance Ministry.

It did not take long for him to become a full-fledged Minister— of Commerce, Steel and Mines. He held the Ministry, which was untouched by the odorous aspects of the ‘Emergency’, till the end—March 1977—when Indira Gandhi was voted out in the general election. He had wholeheartedly supported the then Prime Minister’s action in going to the country, instead of letting the situation drift for one more year although the 42nd Amendment had extended the terms of the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies by one year.
When Indira Gandhi returned to power in the 1980 general election, Pranab resumed his Cabinet post with the portfolio unchanged. He had no ministerial responsibility in the Rajiv period because of political differences with the party leadership. He even launched a new party on the issue of correctness—both in legal and ethical senses—of President Zail Singh swearing in as the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was not even a member of the Congress Legislature Party much less its leader!

P.V. Narasimha Rao virtually manipulated the situation at a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board of which only Narasimha Rao and Pranab were members then. Not being a member of the Lok Sabha was Pranab’s handicap, because the more recent practice of Rajya Sabha members becoming Prime Ministers was not in vogue then.

In 1991 when Narasimha Rao returned from selfimposed political sanyas to assume the mantle of leadership of the literally orphaned party and become the Prime Minister, Pranab became Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission from June 1991 to May 1996. Although Pranab was senior to Narasimha Rao because he would preside over Cabinet meetings during Indira Gandhi’s sojourns abroad during the years of 1980-84 there was no possibility of his claiming the top post because he had left the Congress party and was technically a new entrant. Secondly, he was not a member of the Lok Sabha. Especially after Narasimha Rao handsomely won a by-election to the Lok Sabha from Nandyal in Rayalaseema (Andhra Pradesh) within the stipulated six-month period of assuming Prime Ministership.

For about a year of Narasimha Rao’s chequered but historic Prime Ministership, Pranab was his Foreign Minister from February 1995 to May 1996. By then the Prime Minister had already deftly adapted India’s defence-related relations with the Soviet Union to the new unipolar power structure dominated by the US, the sole superpower following the dissolution of the USSR. The residuary Russian Federation and its erstwhile satellites still remained sources of crucial military hardware but dealings with them had to be put on a commercial basis sans the strategic dimension. Otherwise, India would have been left ‘naked’ in security terms.

Simultaneously, Narasimha Rao established diplomatic relations with Israel 43 years after Nehru’s India recognised the Jewish state and voted for its admission to the UN. Most significantly and dramatically, Narasimha Rao got the Palestine Liberation Organisation chief, Yasser Arafat, to endorse India’s action during a flying visit to New Delhi, a veritable diplomatic feat. Pranab, who was the External Affairs Minister then, could not have been be a mute witness to these revolutionary changes in India’s foreign relations even if his role in the metamorphosis has not been recorded.

Against this background, Pranab is not a ‘replacement’ for Natwar Singh even before the latter had fallen foul of Sonia Gandhi and had been implicated in the Iraqi oil-for-cash scam brought out by the UN report on the Volkar investigation. Not by a long chalk! He is a full-fledged Foreign Minister, which the country had not been having for about 13 months now.

Further, after long years as a member of the Rajya Sabha—for four terms from 1969 to 1999— Pranab was elected to the Lok Sabha in the 2004 general election and as the Defence Minister had been Leader of the House in the Lower House from May 22, 2004. Crowning Natwar Singh’s handling of India’s foreign relations—with shades of Rip Van Winkle writ large on them—the Prime Minister holding additional charge of the Ministry of External Affairs had been having a difficult time dealing with Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai train blasts of July 11 and the Malegoan killings.

Following the Havana agreement between General Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh, the crucial Foreign Secretary level-talks between India and Pakistan have been resumed. In this context, Pranab as a full-fledged Foreign Minister with his unmatched experience brings to his assignment a qualitative change for the better for the country.

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