As Pranab Mukherjee is set to enter Rashtrapati Bhavan,Swaraj Thapa looks at what the exit of the partys chief troubleshooter will mean for UPA-II
Pranab Mukherjees leaving for Rashtrapati Bhavan next month will undoubtedly leave a gap both in the party as well as the government,one that will be difficult to fill,concede Congress leaders. From formulating the party line on coalitions at the Pachmarhi conclave in 1998 and drafting party manifestos for general elections for decades now,to scripting the strategy to deal with Team Anna,Mukherjees role has been virtually indispensable for the party. His seniority in matters relating to governance and administration and his acute sense of history is a combination that is difficult to find in other leaders, says Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan,who worked with him closely when he was a Central minister,particularly while dealing with the Left on the nuclear deal during UPA-I.
Mukherjee may not have shared the same ideological enthusiasm as the Prime Minister on the subject but his services came in handy as his seniority was instrumental in liaising with the Left leaders as well as the Opposition. While much of the background work was done by PMO officials led by then NSA M K Narayanan,Dada (Pranab Mukherjee) played a key role at the political level, says Chavan.
Mukherjees efficacy as a crisis manager was duly recognised by Sonia Gandhi early on after she became Congress president,but it was his role in devising a strategy to deal with the office-of-profit controversy in 2006 that compelled her to rely more and more on his judgment. According to those in the know,she took Pranabs counsel that she should resign and seek re-election,while he set into motion the process to put the National Advisory Council (NAC) in the list of bodies that are exempted as an office of profit. She then became NAC head once again in 2010 as the controversy successfully died down.
In fact,Sonias decision to nominate him as the UPAs presidential candidate may have its origins in that episode,sections in the party feel. They say that her trust quotient in Mukherjee went up exponentially after the office-of-profit issue. Much of the stories about distrust,they contend,was because of his image earlier as a calculative politician. Over the last few years,though,party observers feel that Sonia has developed a high personal regard for him.
When an angry Mukherjee lost his cool in Parliament in the last session when the Opposition accused him of denying jute bags for BJP-ruled states to store grain,Sonia,who was sitting next to him,initially could not help breaking into a smile. But as she realised the situation was turning serious,she held him by the arm and whispered that he should not lose his temper. She then appealed to him to go to his room,drink a glass of water and sit alone for some time. Mukherjee did just that and later returned to the House and apologised for getting angry.
Window of opportunity
Having faced growing criticism over the last three years on various fronts,especially the economy,the UPA can translate Mukherjees exit from the government into an opportunity. Admittedly,there has been criticism from a section that Mukherjees captaincy of the finance ministry has not been in tune with the antidote that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had in mind. It is no secret that given the delicate power balance,Prime Minister Singh has always opted against interfering in the approaches taken by Mukherjee in the running of the finance ministry,or for that matter,the management of the defence ministry by A K Antony.
Moreover,Prime Minister Singh has taken at least a few decisions where he has kept pragmatism over politics,which has not been the case with Mukherjee. For instance,Singh took the decision of going ahead with the nuclear deal even though it led to the Left pulling out support to the UPA,something which Mukherjee might not have done,observers feel. In the coming days,Singh can take crucial decisions over reforms even if it means risking the wrath of allies.
Either way,the vacancy in the finance ministry means that Prime Minister Singh can,till the time he feels that he has changed the course of the countrys economy,steer the ministry himself or allocate it to someone of his choice with whom he has a more approachable relationship. He will,however,be additionally burdened with responsibilities that had so far been handled by Mukherjee through various GoMs and will have to figure out ways to redistribute them to senior ministers.
At the political level too,the party may have to speed up the search for new crisis managers. The Congress is a vast party. We have developed and will develop leadership that will suitably replace the older generation, says a party leader.
Over the last couple of years,the second rung leaders have been entrusted with greater responsibilities. Ministers such as Kapil Sibal,Salman Khurshid,Pawan Bansal and V Narayanasamy have emerged as the new troubleshootersplaying key roles during the Baba Ramdev and Team Anna controversies. Kamal Nath,Ghulam Nabi Azad,Ambika Soni,Vayalar Ravi and Vilasrao Deshmukh too have been roped in to handle various other problems. Among the younger lot,Rajiv Shukla is known for his man-management skills. From the party,it has been general secretary Digvijay Singh who is known to have a relationship with regional leaders.
Much of the burden of political management is expected to fall on Ahmed Patel and Antony as they are the two leaders with seniority and standing that will allow them to negotiate with allies such as M Karunanidhi,Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee and supporting partners Mulayam Singh Yadav,Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan.
The Congress leadership will also have to apply its mind on finding a suitable leader of the Housethough the choice is limited to senior ministers Sushil Kumar Shinde,Jaipal Reddy and Kamal Nath.
Was elected to Rajya Sabha in 1969 for the first time
Re-elected to Rajya Sabha in 75,81,93 and 99. Became Leader of the Rajya Sabha from 80 to 85
Deputy Minister,Industrial Development,73-74
Deputy Minister,Shipping and Transport,Jan 74 to
Minister of State for Finance,Oct 74-Dec 75
Minister of Revenue and Banking (Independent Charge),75-77
Cabinet Minister of Commerce and Steel & Mines,80-82
Deputy Chairman,Planning Commission,91-96
Union Commerce Minister,93-95
Union External Affairs Minister,95-96
Elected to Lok Sabha in 2004 from Jangipur; Leader of the Lok Sabha from June 2004
Union Minister for Defence,04-06
Union Minister for External Affairs,06-09
Union Minister of Finance,Jan 09 till date
His many roles
Has headed 83 Group of Ministers (GoMs) and Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoMs) from June 2004 till date
In the previous UPA-I government,he headed nearly 60 GoMs and EGoMs
Headed the Joint Committee on Lokpal that included Anna Hazare and his team
Headed the drafting committee at Pachmarhi conclave,which for the first time acknowledged the era of coalitions
Chief draftsman of the party manifesto for decades now
Headed party committee that devised line on smaller states
Negotiated alliances with DMK and other parties