President Pranab Mukherjee’s book The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years takes the readers through the economic and social unrest of the period leading up to the Emergency, rise and fall of leaders, many splits within the Congress, while promising to offer more in the next two volumes of the trilogy. The first volume, which was launched exclusively on Amazon.in on Thursday, documents Mukherjee’s relationship with Indira Gandhi during her good and bad years. According to the author, East Pakistan’s struggle for independence in 1971, oil crisis of 1973, Emergency in 1975 and advent of politics of coalition in 1977 were among the developments that signalled “a turning point in the history of independent India”.
At many points in the book, the 13th President of India comes close to justifying the reason for Emergency. But, to be fair to him, Mukherjee mentions that those who had bought into the idea of democracy and were enchanted by the Constitution of India and the successful execution of electoral democracy were rudely shocked (by the Emergency).
The President goes on to say that as part of the Union Cabinet (a junior minister actually) then, he did not understand the deep and far-reaching impact of the Emergency. While it brought with it some positive changes (discipline in public life, a growing economy, controlled inflation, a reversed trade deficit for the first time, crackdown on tax evasion and smuggling), “it was perhaps an avoidable event”, according to the book. He lists press censorship, suspension of fundamental rights, large-scale arrests of political leaders and extending the life of legislatures by not conducting elections as among the instances of Emergency adversely affecting the interests of people. “The Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure.”
Mukherjee, who’s written four books earlier, describes himself as a ”boy who moves from a flickering lamp in a remote village in West Bengal to the glittering chandeliers of the national capital”. The Dramatic Decade, from Rupa Publications, filled with letters, photographs and extracts from official documents, begins with Mukerjee’s home town Mirati, his disinterest in studies as a child and subsequently his post-graduation in political science, modern history and a degree in law.
He recounts how his father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, a Congress loyalist, had reminded him about standing by a person in his or her hour of crisis. It is then that “you reveal your own humanity”, his father had told him. “I did not, then or later, waver from my loyalty to Indira Gandhi,” the President writes. Even as he has been keeping personal diaries over the years, Mukherjee had to depend much on his memory for writing this book as many of his material got lost as his house got flooded.
The chapter on Emergency is titled “The Midnight Drama”, where he narrates how, as a junior minister, he was urgently called back from Kolkata (Calcutta then) where he had gone for the Rajya Sabha election. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the then West Bengal chief minister, played an important role, as an advisor to Indira Gandhi, in the decision to declare Emergency on the grounds of internal disturbance, according to Mukherjee.
Once Emergency was declared, there were a whole host of people claiming authorship of the idea, the book says. Again, ”not surprisingly, these same people took a sharp turn” later. Sidhhartha Shankar Ray was no exception. He cites an instance when Ray ran into Indira Gandhi draped in a crimson sari while deposing before the Shah Commission. “You look pretty today,” Ray told her. “Despite your efforts,” she retorted.
A large number of ministers and bureaucrats appeared before the Shah Commission, and evidence recorded by the Commission indicated that the Emergency decision was taken by Indira Gandhi alone and the Cabinet was not taken into confidence, the author observes. ”The proceedings of the Shah Commission were peculiar…. Suffice it to say that it seemed that the Commission was collecting material and information only to substantiate a pre-conceived conclusion.”
Kasu Brahmananda Reddy, the then home minister, told the Shah Commission that he was summoned to the PM’s residence at about 10.30 pm and was told Emergency had to be imposed because of the law and order situation. Mukherjee observes that the letter signed by Reddy on imposing Emergency was on a plain sheet of paper and not a letterhead of the home ministry of India.
The book produces the letter written by Indira Gandhi to President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed on the night of June 25, 1975, recommending imposition of Emergency immediately as there’s ”danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbance”. She wrote, ”I would have liked to have taken this to Cabinet but unfortunately this is not possible tonight…I am therefore condoning or permitting a departure from the government of India (Transaction of Business) Rule 1961…..I shall mention the matter to the Cabinet first thing tomorrow morning.” Just a few days earlier, on June 20, 1975, Indira Gandhi had made an emotional plea before 15 lakh people, the book says recounting the much talked about Boat Club rally in the capital.
As a build-up to the Emergency, Mukherjee describes the economic crisis of the time. Finance Minister Y B Chavan had to present new taxation proposals five months after the Budget in 1974. “If this was not extraordinary, what was,” the author asks. “Even if the political unrest which led to the declaration of the Emergency overshadowed the economic aspects, there’s no denying the fact that economic hardships-high prices, non-availability of goods and lack of services-had prepared the ground for political unrest.”
The book talks about the Jayaprakash Narayan rally at Ramlila Maidan where he announced civil disobedience. Sharply critical of JP’s “histrionics”, Mukherjee says “the Opposition’s sole aim was to get Indira Gandhi to resign…” However, the author points out that JP was a “rare Indian politician who didn’t clamour for office or power in spite of having it within his reach; he was a man who could have succeeded Nehru as the second most popular man on the Indian political stage.” Then he adds, “How could such a man not see through the opportunism of the opposition parties?”
The book captures the arrest of Indira Gandhi in 1977 from her 12 Willingdon Crescent residence, as well as her return to active politics. Even before her victory in the 1980 Lok Sabha election, Indira Gandhi had advised Mukherjee “to choose people who could run the government”. Though she had advised him against contesting the Lok Sabha election in 1980, he did and lost.
When Mukherjee went to meet her straight from the airport, Sanjay Gandhi said she had been upset with his defeat. “It was about 9 pm and Indira Gandhi was sitting in the dining room at one end of the long dining table. She had a bad cold and was soaking her feet in a tub of warm water. Standing at the other end of the dining table, I received a vociferous dressing down for what seemed to be an interminable span of time.” She then sent Mukherjee home with a basket of fruit.
Although most people had guessed Mukherjee would not be part of the new Indira Cabinet as he had lost in the election, “Kamal Nath (a close friend of Sanjay Gandhi) came to see me”, the writer says. Sanjay Gandhi wanted to meet him next. Sanjay told Mukherjee it had already been decided “to include you in the government with the Cabinet rank as commerce minister”. At the swearing-in, however, Mukherjee found there was no seat for him in the row of ministers. It later emerged that his name was handwritten and not typed, and President’s Secretariat missed it. Indira Gandhi, who was watching, wrote a letter to the President’s secretary to rectify the list, and Mukherjee was seated between PV Narasimha Rao and R Venkataraman. Media wrote later that Mukherjee’s inclusion was an after-thought. Indira Gandhi wanted to have a team of 22, an astrologically lucky number, Mukherjee light-heartedly says, citing media rumours!