On April 26, 1986, Pranab Mukheree was sitting with veteran party leader Kamlapati Tripathi when lightning struck. In April, it is not unusual for Delhi to witness gushy dust storms but a lightening was bit strange. When telephone rang, Tripathi’s daughter-in-law Chandra picked up the phone and turned pale. Looking at a somewhat poised Mukherjee, she told Tripathi that Mukherjee has been expelled from the Congress for six long years. For a man, who until year-and-a-half ago, was officially designated as number two in Indira Gandhi cabinet, none of his party leaders had bothered to inform him. The expulsion order was not signed by any AICC functionary but lowly office secretary.
Tripathi was having daily tussle with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In protest, he did what had become Varanasi born leader’s second-most favourite daily pastime after performing elaborate puja – writing copious letter to Rajiv. These letters were written in bold language and demanding in nature, articulating concerns of the in-house old guard dissidents.Mukherjee turned defiant. He told India Today in its May 15, 1986 edition, “I have been a proud Congressman; ...nobody can take my contribution away...to those who think I have no power base, I can only say that I will remain an activist. I believe in the Congress ideology, and in whatever way I can, I will propagate that.” [interview with Inderjit Bhadhwar]
While Tripathi and Vasant Dada Patil [former Maharashtra chief minister who was governor of Rajasthan then] turned vocal, a handful of party leaders namely A P Sharma, Shyam Sunder Mahapatra, R Gundu Rao, Mayawati Tripathi, Sripat Mishra, Deep Chand Bhatia and Ashok Bhattacharya joined Mukherjee’s Rashtriya Socialist Congress [RSC]. A national convention was held in January 1987 in Vithalbhai Patel House, New Delhi where an alternative, sixteen point programme was announced to take on Rajiv who was also Congress president. Rajiv revoked A P Sharma and Gundu Rao’s suspension in May 1987.
In electoral terms, Mukherjee was badly mauled at the home turf of Bengal. His party had contested over 200 seats in March 1987 state assembly polls and lost all. Even five sitting Congress MLAs who had defected to RSC, lost their deposit. Led by Jyoti Basu, the Left alliance won 244 seats leaving the Congress to 40 in the house of 294. The magnitude of defeat was so severe that Mukherjee turned conciliatory towards Rajiv-led Congress.
This was a time Rajiv was himself struggling and battling on many fronts. Bofors and a range of other scandals had badly demolished his ‘Mr Clean’ image. V P Singh, Arun Nehru, Arif Mohammad Khan had turned rebellious forming Jan Morcha.
In his memoirs, “The Turbulent Years – 1980-1996” [Rupa], published in 2016, Mukherjee has profusely thanked Sheila Dikshit for his ‘ghar wapsi.’ “I learnt later that two individuals, Santosh Mohan Deb and Sheila Dikshit, lobbied with Rajiv to bring me back to the party. I did not know her personally at that time...” wrote Mukherjee.
Sheila Dikshit, daughter-in-law of Congress veteran Uma Shankar Dikshit, had won her Lok Sabha polls from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh in December 1984. Rajiv had subsequently made her parliamentary affairs minister. She used to distribute chit to ministers and MPs giving them talking points to cover in their debates or responses. She was also actively working with Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary panel which gave her some proximity to Rajiv, Sonia Gandhi and many chief ministers of party-ruled states.
In his autobiographical account, Mukherjee deftly dealt with the vexed issue of his differences with Rajiv Gandhi. At one place, he wrote, “To return to the question of why he dropped me from the Cabinet and expelled me from the party, all I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.”
Mukherjee admitted that he failed to sense Rajiv’s unhappiness and the hostility of those around him. “However, I remained engrossed in my work, as is my usual way. Many of my actions, all without malice or ill-intent, were used by my detractors to project me as someone unwilling to accept Rajiv’s leadership. Petty things were blown up into huge issues.”
Mukherjee cited an example for an interview he gave on October 31, 1984 in which he had stated that the economic policies of the government would continue. This was a time Indira was dead and Rajiv had taken over as new prime minister while Mukherjee was finance minister. “It was interpreted as questioning the authority of the Prime Minister. While I had given the interview to quell any uncertainty about India in the international markets following the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, it was portrayed as presumptuous and unmindful of Rajiv’s authority.”