Friday, October 13, 2017

Manmohan Singh taunts Pranab Mukherjee


It was uncharacteristic of the man. Yet it was not. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken former prime minister Manmohan Singh can be acerbic when he wants to be. It was seen in the past whenever he spoke about senior BJP leader L.K.Advani. He could be unsparing and stinging. This became visible on Friday (October 13) evening at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) auditorium, at the launch of former president Pranab Mukherjee's third volume of memoirs, Coalition Years (Rupa; Rs 500).
Singh walked in and did not choose to sit in the middle, front row which is the usual seating place of VVIPs. CPI-M's Sitaram Yechury, CPI's D.Raja, DMK's Kanimozhi, former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav were already seated there. Singh went and sat alone in the left front row, alone. He obliged the publisher's family when they posed for a photograph with him. And there was another lady who sat in the second row behind and wanted a picture as well, and a journalist did the friendly deed of clicking. When Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi walked and sat in the central front row, Singh walked, pictures were clicked, and he was back again to his corner seat.
First Mukherjee spoke when the book was formally launched and everyone on the dais was clicked plentifully. He went on about he started out as a "humble party worker" of a regional party and how he became part of the Congress and how he remained a member of the Congress Working Committee for the longest period. He was trying to give a sober account of himself, without trumpeting himself as it were. But there was no denying the fact that Mukherjee was making the point that he was the longest serving Congressman around.
Then Singh spoke. He said Mukherjee was the "greatest living politician", "greatest living Congressman", "greatest living parliamentarian". Yes, Singh, used the same phrase, "greatest living..." thrice in a short speech. Then came the stinging remark. He said that Mukherjee might have felt aggrieved that he (Singh) became prime minister, and that he (Mukherjee) felt that he (Mukherjee) was more deserving. Then Singh said that it was Sonia Gandhi who chose him prime minister and he had no choice in the matter. Then he went on to say that in spite of this misgiving in the mind of Mukherjee, they (he and Mukherjee) worked closely. He said that when Mukherjee was a junior minister in the finance ministry, he was the secretary, and that the two had flown to Bombay to meet the then finance minister Subramaniam who was in hospital, and how they finalised the 1976 Budget in the hospital room. He said that later when Mukherjee became the finance minister, he went off to Reserve Bank of India. He did not refer to the unofficial joibe attributed to Mukherjee who was had said it was I (Mukherjee) who had signed his appointment letter as the governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
Singh referred to the "grievance" that Mukherjee might have nursed that he (Mukherjee) was not made the prime minister twice. Clearly, there were negative vibes somewhere.
Though Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were sitting in the front row, and every speaker addressed them, they did not deign to speak on the occasion. They must have been amused by the little cold war between Singh and Mukherjee.
Interestingly, former finance minister P.Chidambaram was conspicuous by his absence.

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