“The highest honour in our democracy does not lie in any office but in being a citizen of India, our motherland,” Pranab Mukherjee said in his farewell broadcast to the nation as he demitted office as President in the summer of 2017. He exuded the same humility on Friday as the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour, was conferred on him. Mukherjee was never an ordinary citizen, at least since July 1969 when he entered Parliament at the age of 34.
Starting off as a protégé of Indira Gandhi, he soon became a man for all seasons. The once Congress stalwart wore many hats over the last five decades in public life and 37 years in Parliament, the last being the highest constitutional office of the land. And he left office making a mark as a statesman and a man of conviction.
Before assuming the office of President in 2012, Mukherjee was often considered the quintessential old-school politician who commanded the respect of all and had friends across the aisle. For the Congress, he had become a crisis manager with a precious trait — the firm belief in pragmatic consensus. A liberal, secular and democrat to the core, Mukherjee perhaps is the Prime Minister that Congress never gave to India. In fact, he came close to becoming the prime minister in 2012. In his own words, he got a sense that he could replace Manmohan Singh, who could be sent to Rashtrapati Bhawan. But destiny had other plans. In his book The Coalition Years, 1996-2012, Mukherjee revealed that less than two months before he took oath as President, he had come away from a meeting with then Congress president Sonia Gandhi with a “vague” impression that she may be in favour of Singh as President.
In fact, many thought he would succeed Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister way back in 1984 after her assassination. For he was a senior minister and staunch family loyalist, who stood beside her during the Emergency and its aftermath. In 1978, when the Congress split, he stood with her. However, he suffered a blow when he was not made a minister when Rajiv Gandhi announced his new cabinet. His elevation as President in 2012 perhaps put to an end a general perception that the Congress leadership was wary of placing its full trust on him.
During his Presidential years, he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed a very cordial relationship and established a good working rapport. So much so that Mukherjee in his farewell speech in Parliament said he had strived to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, not just in word but also in spirit and “in this task, I greatly benefitted from the advice and co-operation extended by Prime Minister Modi at every step”.
Controversy, however, caught up with him after he demitted office. His decision to go to the RSS headquarters at Nagpur and deliver an address created a row and left his former colleagues in the Congress nervous. But Mukherjee again displayed statesmanship and his conviction in India’s secular, plural and democratic values when he used the occasion to assert that “any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity”.