Don't write off Congress party, it will bounce back, says Pranab Mukherjee

Did the UPA lose out because of miscalculation on seats, or poor handling of the coalition, including Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee who snapped ties with the Congress at a crucial juncture in 2012? Was the BJP in 2014 getting better poll feedback from the ground than the Congress?

Perhaps all are true and have contributed to the grand old party's stunning general election defeat three years ago, says Pranab Mukherjee, former president of India and a Congressman to the core till he entered Rashtrapati Bhavan. However, Mukherjee, who had showered "emotions" on Prime Minister Narendra Modi at many public platforms, said something which will not please the PM and many in the NDA camp: "Don't write off Congress...the 132-yearold party will bounce back."

In an exclusive interview with India Today Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa, the first after leaving his office as President, Mukherjee spoke at length on his equations with party "high-command" Sonia Gandhi to his "political rival for PM's chair", Manmohan Singh, to a few "economic tips" to PM Modi on demonetisation and the "politically volatile" Goods and Services Tax (GST).

At a time when the current NDA government is battling criticism over slump in economy and rising public anger over fuel prices and GST, Mukherjee has a simple advice: "Don't create panic... don't make changes too frequently."

Mukherjee, who himself had pushed the GST when he was in the UPA government, said, "I think GST is a good thing. The process, however, will have teething problems."

From economy, he moved to his first love - politics, party and party "high command" - as he opened up on his relations with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

"In the initial years, there was coolness in her (Gandhi) approach to me. But after Vajpayeeji formed the government, there was a change in equation," he said, adding, "India would have accepted her if she became PM. People voted for her in 2004."

On being asked how he felt when Sonia chose Manmohan over him for the PM's chair, Mukherjee was categorical: "Not disappointed, because I considered myself disqualified from ever being the Prime Minister of India. One disqualification was that, for most part of my career, I was always in the Rajya Sabha. Only in 2004 did I win a seat to the Lok Sabha. Second, though I was elected to the Lok Sabha, I did not know Hindi. And without knowing Hindi, nobody should venture to be the PM of India. Kamaraj said that once- 'No Hindi, no prime ministership'."

He went on to justify Gandhi's faith in Singh. "My honest assessment at the time was that Manmohan was the best choice. Over time, he had understood administrative and political nuances. He had vast administrative experience and was well-versed in economic affairs. He has always been a man of highest integrity. He's widely respected across the world as an economist of repute."

Did he face problems working with PM Singh? "I didn't have any issue because everyone knew my temper and way of functioning. Everyone allowed me to work in my own way." When asked why Congress lost so badly in 2014, he said, "We managed the coalition of UPA-I exceedingly well. It was much more cohesive. We could deliver good governance. But in UPA-II, the coalition did not do so."

Mukherjee added: "One reason for the Congress downfall was that it thought that the 200 seats it won were equal to 280 seats. So the flexibility of mind and flexibility to accept others' views was restricted. Secondly, in terms of the coalition, Mamata Banerjee departed in 2012. It was very difficult to handle her, no doubt, but at the same time we had to handle her because she had 19 Lok Sabha members, a big partner."

Even Congress' own intelligence from the ground was "misleading", says Mukherjee. "Although Sonia and Manmohan hinted the situation was critical, Congress leaders, who met me, assessed that they would get 160-170 seats and gave BJP around 180. Surprisingly, Piyush Goyal told me that BJP was not going to get less than 260 and he was nearest to the mark."

He signs off with a tip to Modi, this time on diplomacy: "I have always believed war is no solution. Armed intervention is no solution. The only solution is talk, dialogue, and nothing beyond that, when it comes to Pakistan and China."

The full interview with Raj Chengappa will be published in the October 23 issue of the India Today Magazine. Subscribe here.

The exclusive interview of Pranab Mukherjee with senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai will be aired on India Today Television today.