A day after the Bhopal gas tragedy at the Union Carbide India plant on December 2, 1984, the government was actively considering a proposal to nationalise the company with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi scheduling an urgent meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs.
“On 3 December, I got a message while campaigning [for the general elections] in Orissa. ‘Come back to Delhi immediately…” the Finance Minister at the time and present President Pranab Mukherjee has revealed in his book The Turbulent Years — 1980-1996 .
Gandhi, who was himself campaigning somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, returned to the capital along with State Chief Minister Arjun Singh and Vasant Sathe, Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers. Mr. Mukherjee and Gandhi were the only members of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs present in Delhi at the time.
“From the tenor of the talks, it appeared that some thinking had crystallised on the future course of action. Perhaps the proposal to nationalise Union Carbide India had already informally been discussed,” Mr. Mukherjee wrote in his memoirs.
Arguing that the move would send a wrong message, Mr. Mukherjee said: “Union Carbide is a big multinational. Nationalising it would be compared with the nationalisation of Coca-Cola and seen as a mistake … (it) will discourage future investments into India. This will be a huge setback.”
Mr. Mukherjee also pointed out that as general elections had already been announced following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, it would be imprudent for a caretaker government to take a major policy decision.
“The government is expected to take only routine decisions. The Congress will win this election hands down. Why vitiate the election process?” he asked.
Gandhi agreed with his Finance Minister and added, “I can feel it. There is a tremendous sympathy wave because of Indiraji. We will win.”
Sathe was unhappy at the outcome of the meeting and alluding to Mr. Mukherjee’s short height, said, “Like Indiraji’s government, this one, too, is being run by one-and-a-half-men.” He was referring to the PM and the Finance Minister.
However, the joy of having his views accepted by the PM was short-lived for Mr. Mukherjee. Twenty-nine days later, the Congress swept the polls with 404 seats in the Lok Sabha, but he never got a call to join the Cabinet.
“Being dropped from Rajiv’s cabinet was not even peripherally in my mind. As it happened, P.V. Narasimha Rao, too, was on tenterhooks, calling me several times to check if I had received a call,” Mr. Mukherjee recalled, adding that he was ‘shell-shocked and flabbergasted.’
A couple of months later, Gandhi gave an interview to Sunday magazine, where he said Mr. Mukherjee was dropped as the Finance Ministry was not being run ‘tightly’ and the Finance Minister had to be very tough, not ‘goody-goody.’ Mr. Mukherjee was subsequently appointed president of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee.
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