It was May 2008. Pranab Mukherjee, then External Affairs Minister, was in Islamabad to hold a bilateral meeting with the new Pakistan government, the first high-level meeting after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and Pervez Musharraf ousted.
Mukherjee met Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and former President Musharraf.
As one of the journalists covering the meeting in Islamabad, I — along with a few other journalists — went to Indian High Comm issioner Satyabrata Pal’s residence to meet Mukherjee and get a sense of the conversation he had with Pakistan’s leaders.
But, before he shared his assessment of the meeting, he was on the telephone with New Delhi on a key issue bothering him: the West Bengal panchayat elections, counting of votes for which was under way and the results were trickling in.
With hindsight, we know that the 2008 panchayat election in West Bengal, his home state, was the pivotal election signalling the beginning of the end of the three-decade Left Front rule and Mamata Banerjee’s TMC’s march to victory in 2011. In that ‘2008 election, the Left’s vote share plunged to 52 per cent from the earlier highs of close to 90 per cent.
Later, Banerjee won 19 out of 42 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, before dislodging the Left in the 2011 Assembly elections.
That was Pranab Mukherjee, the quintessential politician who knew the importance of events and tasks at hand, and could carry them out effortlessly.
The former President died on Monday. He was 84.
Mukherjee was the UPA’s point person of all things important — governance and politics, but my interaction with him was primarily during his days as External Affairs Minister.
Mukherjee was key to almost every important decision in the UPA regime, especially when it came to foreign policy matters.
Prime Ministers have had the decisive role when it comes to foreign policy and diplomacy in India. The template had been set by India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru. Foreign ministers usually have limited space, especially on key foreign policy decisions. Mukherjee was not one of the pushovers.
A fact underlined by then NSA Shivshankar Menon, who worked with him during the UPA years, as wrote in his book “Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy”: “In India since Nehru’s time, foreign policy has always been directly managed by the prime minister, strong external affairs ministers, such as Pranab Mukherjee, are the exception.”
Menon should know.
Mukherjee was at the forefront of the negotiations of the Indo-US nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008. “Showing infinite patience and mastery of detail, Mukherjee never allowed the talks to break down, even though the Left parties were determined to scuttle the deal, or at least to drag out the process in the hope of ensuring that it never reached fruition or entered into legal force,” Menon wrote. “Mukherjee was a master of the domestic political and parliamentary process required to bring the initiative to fruition.”
It was his public restatement of India’s disarmament stances — the voluntary moratorium on testing, for instance — on the morning before the Nuclear Suppliers Group decision, which helped move the needle, apart from the now-famous phone call by then US President George W Bush to then Chinese President Hu Jintao. The deal was signed between Mukherjee and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on October 10 in Washington.
Mukherjee’s other important foreign policy moment was after the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. In fact, that evening, on November 26, he was hosting the visiting Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi for the bilateral meeting. Hours after the meeting concluded, the first gunshots were fired by Kasab and other terrorists from Pakistan.
The External Affairs Minister was at the forefront of India’s diplomatic blitzkrieg against Pakistan over the next few months, and shaped the Indian government’s response to globally shame Islamabad. Almost every day, he would make statements, “all options are on the table”, indicating the military option as well.
Mukherjee was one of those in the top leadership who thought that India should retaliate.
As Foreign Secretary, Menon urged Mukherjee and PM Manmohan Singh to retaliate to deter further attacks and assuage public sentiment. “My preference was for overt action against LeT headquarters in Muridke or the LeT camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and covert action against their sponsors, the ISI. Mukherjee seemed to agree with me and spoke publicly of all our options being open,” he wrote. That India chose the path of restraint is well documented now, and that gave New Delhi the elbow room to conduct the surgical strikes in 2016 and air strikes in 2019.
Mukherjee’s personal diplomatic capital with Bangladesh is no secret. Legend has it that he had personally looked after Sheikh Hasina when she lived in India after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975. The Hasina family was extremely close to him, and successive governments used his offices to strengthen India’s ties with Dhaka.
Mukherjee visited Dhaka several times, as President and even after he stepped down, and had relationships across the political divide.
After the Modi government came to power, while ties were improving, a top Bangladeshi political leader told me how they miss a Bengali leader in the government who they can reach out to in times of “crisis”. Though New Delhi did field a couple of Bengali-speaking ministers to have channels of communication with the leadership in Dhaka, Mukherjee’s absence was felt in recent months, especially after the NRC and CAA soured ties with New Delhi.
Mukherjee’s role in recognising Nepal’s “multi-party democracy” is not so well known.
In April 2006, as Nepal’s streets saw protests against King Gyanendra, India was seen as trying to protect an unpopular monarchy. PM Singh had already left for a trip to Germany. Mukherjee, then Defence Minister, was in-charge as the senior-most cabinet minister.
Then Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran asked him for permission to publicly abandon India’s erstwhile mantra of supporting the twin principles of “multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy”.
“I conveyed to Mukherjee that what I was saying (that India would support any decision and any form of government that people of Nepal wanted) would be at variance with a statement PM Singh had made the same day in Berlin. This could lead to awkward questions later on. Pranab Mukherjee asked me to go ahead and do whatever was necessary to defuse the situation in Nepal and safeguard India’s interests. He undertook to explain the situation himself to the Prime Minister when he returned,” Saran wrote in his book “How India Sees the World”. This shift in policy has been tested with time, and has aged well.
When the Sri Lankan army’s campaign to defeat LTTE was in full play in 2009, Mukherjee flew to Colombo one night in January. He went straight to the Presidential palace for military briefing by Army chief Sarath Fonseka and a political meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He landed at 8 pm, and returned to India after midnight.
“Despite differences in public posture on the issue in Tamil Nadu and Delhi, there was cross party private understanding on the basics of policy towards Sri Lanka with both DMK and AIADMK, as a result of Pranab Mukherjee and M K Narayanan,” Menon wrote in his book.
In fact, Sri Lankan politicians reached out to him when they visited India. One such instance was when PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was visiting India amid the political turmoil in October 2018. Weeks later, there would be a political coup of sorts, when President Maithripala Sirisena would swear in Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM.
So, when Wickremesinghe was visiting India, apart from his official meetings, he wanted to talk to Mukherjee, who was in West Bengal during Durga Puja. He wanted a secure line to talk to him. But, back in the village in West Bengal, there was no such facility. “So his aides arranged for a WhatsApp call between Ranil and Mukherjee,” a source told The Indian Express.
Many have wondered how a politician of his calibre felt as he was bypassed for the Prime Minister’s job.
Once I got an answer in a deep gossip session between him and some “Bengali” journalists. During a regular afternoon adda at Mukherjee’s residence, on a slow news day, we were all trying to get a story out of him. But he was in no mood to indulge.
Suddenly, one of the journalists popped him a question: “Pranab babu, you have worked at the top level for so many decades, and been a step away from the Prime Minister’s job. What’s the problem? Why don’t you get it?” There was a hushed silence, Mukherjee was reading something, and he continued. After some time, he just said, “My fate was decided the day Bengal was partitioned.”
I didn’t catch on immediately. Later, I was explained that he meant that an undivided Bengal would have had more than 100 seats in Parliament because of its population, making it the largest sender of MPs and giving it huge political sway in Indian politics — the way UP has today with 80 seats. With Bengal’s partition, the chances of a leader from Bengal becoming PM had gone, and so was his, he felt.
One wouldn’t know.
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