Indira Gandhi headed into the 1980 elections strong and confident as ever. Demonstrating that she clearly had her finger on the pulse of the nation, she predicted a rousing victory. This was evident in an interaction I had with her on the choice of party candidates for election.

While I was all for choosing core and loyal Congressmen to contest, Indira Gandhi advised me to “choose people who could run the government” – so confident was she of electoral success. And her confidence was well-founded. She had strongly advised me against contesting the Lok Sabha election in 1980, but gave in at my insistence.

I contested the election from the Bolpur constituency, and was defeated by a margin of 68,629 votes. The CPI(M) candidate retained the seat (he had been elected from this constituency in 1962, 1971 and 1977). Since the delimitation in 1962, this seat had been won by the Congress only once in 1967.

The decisive defeat demoralised me. I had worked hard and secured nearly 200,000 votes but the CPI(M) was superior in organisation. Moreover, infighting within the Congress (I), lack of organisational enterprise and, worst of all, sabotage by some local Congress leaders were some of the key factors for my defeat.

In the rest of the country, the performance of the Congress (I) was good: it secured more than a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha but in West Bengal, it bagged only 4 out of 42 seats. Barkat was elected from Malda by a margin of nearly 12,000 votes. The other three successful candidates were Ashoke Kumar Sen, Ananda Gopal Mukherjee and Dr Golam Yazdani.

My wife, Geeta, had already left for Delhi when the results came out. She called me on the same day and said I should return to Delhi immediately as Indira Gandhi wanted to meet me. I returned to Delhi by the evening flight and went straight to 12 Willingdon Crescent to meet Indira Gandhi. It would not be an understatement to say that she was unhappy about my insistence to contest the election.

Sanjay Gandhi told me she had been upset ever since she had heard of my defeat, and she made her displeasure evident when I met her. I was unambiguously chastised. 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. I was rebuked for taking the ill-advised decision of contesting from Bolpur, against her advice, and was told that such imprudent decisions nullified all my other hard work. Having recognised my folly, I could do nothing but stand there till she calmed down. She then sent me home with a basket of fruit.

The media was rife with speculation about the proposed cabinet. Various names were suggested but no one mentioned mine. Everyone had taken it for granted that my electoral defeat would cause me to be left out of the government. Bengali newspapers started projecting Barkat, and his supporters also went about saying that he was tipped for an important portfolio. So much so that Congressmen from West Bengal came to Delhi and started flocking around Barkat, who stayed at Jeet Paul’s Park Hotel in New Delhi in those days. At my invitation, some of them came to my residence for dinner. Though I refrained from discussing it with them, they seemed to rather enjoy my predicament.

Congress leaders from Assam, Orissa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, however, came and told me they would talk to Indira and Sanjay Gandhi about my inclusion in the cabinet. I told them to leave matters where they were and not to lobby for me. But they were insistent. I do not know for certain but I believe they did take the matter up with Indira Gandhi.

On 10 January, Indira Gandhi was elected leader of the party at the meeting of the Congress (I) Parliamentary Party. I attended the meeting as usual. Indira Gandhi’s name was proposed by B Shankaranand, elected to the Lok Sabha from Chikkodi in Karnataka, and seconded by Jamil-ur-Rehman, a member from Purnea, Bihar. On 11 and 12 January, I was mostly at my residence. A stream of visitors—Congress leaders from the states and the centre as also newly elected MPs from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat came and met me.

One senior leader told me that Indira Gandhi had advised him to see me, and a few others reported similarly. I still cannot reason why, but perhaps Indira Gandhi felt that my defeat should not bog me down. When the Sikkim Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari and the Assam Chief Minister Jogendra Nath Hazarika met Indira Gandhi, she instructed them to talk to me since I was looking after the Northeastern region.

On the afternoon of 12 January, Kamal Nath came to see me, and told me of some likely inclusions in the cabinet. I thought there might be some truth in the information since Kamal Nath was close to Sanjay Gandhi. He said he was trying to induct Barkat as a Cabinet Minister. He then asked me if I had had a word with Indira Gandhi or with Sanjay Gandhi about my inclusion in the cabinet. (I had a hunch that Kamal Nath wanted to know my mind.) I apprised him in the negative, and he left, saying that he was going to meet Sanjay Gandhi.

Sanjay Gandhi called me in the evening and asked me to meet him. When I reached Indira Gandhi’s residence, Sanjay Gandhi told me clearly that he was sorry to know that I was upset about the possibility of my non-inclusion in the government.

I told him he was incorrectly informed because, frankly, I did not mull over that matter at all after my defeat and that I knew it would be quite embarrassing to approach Indira Gandhi for my inclusion in the government. To this, Sanjay Gandhi told me, “It was already decided to include you in the government with the cabinet rank as Commerce Minister.”

But he had no idea whether I would be among the first lot to be sworn in, or the second. He asked me to speak to Indira Gandhi. I told him I didn’t think it appropriate to speak to her on this matter. Meanwhile, I was informed that Indira Gandhi wanted to speak to me. When I met her, she told me to talk to the Sikkim Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari and work out a scheme for the merger of his party with the Congress.

After this, she sought my opinion regarding certain individuals, without citing any specific reason for such inquiry. I gave her my account of those individuals: the names she had mentioned kept appearing in newspapers as likely entrants into the cabinet. After some twenty minutes of discussion, she told me to carry some fruit back home for my wife and children, and a servant was asked to carry a basket to my car.

At her residence gate, I met Barun Sengupta, a good friend of mine. Barun babu was anxious to know if I had had any conversation with the Prime Minister designate about the formation of the cabinet. I told him we had only spoken of the Sikkim organisation which, in any case, was true. The next day, on 13 January, I had several visitors at my residence, many of whom wanted to know if I was going to be included in the government. I disappointed all.

On the morning of 14 January, the date fixed for the swearing-in ceremony, newspapers were agog with speculation. At about 9.30 am, I received a call from RK Dhawan requesting me to be at Rashtrapati Bhawan by 11 am. He told me that I need not wait for any message or call from the Cabinet Secretariat. Accompanied by Mr Abrol, Member of Customs and Chairman of CBEC (Central Board of Excise and Customs) during my tenure from 1975 to 1977, I drove to Rashtrapati Bhawan.

When I reached the Ashoka Hall there was no seat for me in the row of the ministers to be sworn in. I looked at Indira Gandhi, who immediately realised that something was amiss. RK Dhawan came up to me and asked me to wait.

He went to the Cabinet Secretary and then consulted the President’s Secretary, only to discover that in the letter recommending the names of ministers to be appointed, my name had been handwritten, not typed. The President’s Secretariat had inadvertently missed it as a consequence. Naturally, no seat had been earmarked for me.

Indira Gandhi immediately wrote another letter by hand and got it delivered to the President’s Secretary. I was asked to sit between R Venkataraman and PV Narasimha Rao. The swearing-in papers were handed over to me but, not being in possession of the list of ministers, I did not know my portfolio.

I asked PV Narasimha Rao and R Venkataraman but they told me that they were not privy to any details, except their respective portfolios. Indira Gandhi was sworn in first, followed by Kamalapati Tripathi. The names that followed his were called out alphabetically. A total of twenty-two members were sworn in as the Council of Ministers.

The state-wise break-up of the Council of Ministers was thus: UP: 2; West Bengal: 2; Andhra Pradesh: 3; Tamil Nadu: 2; Bihar: 3; Karnataka: 2; Maharashtra: 1; Gujarat: 1; Punjab: 1; Haryana: 1; Assam: 1; Orissa: 1; Rajasthan: 1; and Madhya Pradesh: 1. There was no one in the cabinet who was not a member of either of the two Houses of Parliament; I was the only person defeated in the Lok Sabha election, though I continued to be a member of the Rajya Sabha.

The Tribune, published from Chandigarh, commented on my inclusion: “A last minute addition to the cabinet was Mr. Pranab Mukherjee who has just been defeated in the election for Lok Sabha in West Bengal. He is a member of the Rajya Sabha. His name was added quite some time after Mrs Gandhi had sent the final list to the President N Sanjiva Reddy.”

Media rumours had it that Indira Gandhi wanted to have a team of twenty-two, an astrologically auspicious number, and since Bhagwat Jha Azad had refused to be sworn in, I was included. Rumours stemming from fertile imaginations indeed, since I had already explained the sequence of events leading to my inclusion.

Excerpted with permission from The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, Pranab Mukherjee, Rupa Publications.