His name carried the correct initials — “PM” — for the top job but the office of Prime Minister eluded Pranab Mukherjee all his life. India’s 13th Rashtrapati, a “Bharat Ratna” who strode the political stage for half a century, was number two in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet in the early Eighties. A quarter of a century later, he remained number two in Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet.
The first time I went to see him — he would see scribes in that side room at 13 Talkatora Road, where he lived for over 15 years — I was struck to see a picture of Kautilya and a copy of the Arthashastra in his room. It was his favourite book and he would refer to it often. When you went in to see him, you knew instinctively not to sit down till he had asked you to do so. Several journalists would keep standing, if he was poring over a file. “Were you a bureaucrat in your last birth?” he teased one of them.
But Pranabda was a stickler for protocol. He did not like it when an editor remarked that there was no ashtray on his table. He ticked off a leading TV anchor, on camera, for asking questions in a raised voice. He was, after all, speaking to the former President of India who deserved courtesy. The diminutive man was conscious of his political stature; Indira Gandhi had told him that “political standing must never be compromised”.
Pranabda was a paradox in more ways than one. He supported the Emergency, which abridged fundamental rights, and was indicted by the Shah Commission. Impressed with his talents when he had campaigned for V K Krishna Menon in 1969, Indira Gandhi had given him a Rajya Sabha seat when he was only 33. And yet, in the latter part of his life, he became a convinced believer in the import of democratic rights, possibly because he saw it as the only way to run a country as diverse as India. He said later that emergency could have been avoided. He called Parliament, the “Gangotri of our democracy”.
He was cast in the mould of a Nehruvian, and his political DNA stayed with him till the end. He sent shock waves through the corporate world when he defended the retrospective amendment in the income tax law that would force British telecom operator Vodafone to pay Rs 23,000 crore as tax and penalty. His words — “Indian Parliament is omnipotent” — were meant to demonstrate the authority of the Indian State, with its own message to the MNCs. Yet, he enjoyed an excellent relationship with Indian business houses.
Though Indira Gandhi called him a “man for all seasons”, he was not really trusted by Rajiv Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi. In 1984, when Rajiv won with a whopping 404 seats, Pranabda kept waiting for an invitation to join the Cabinet. It was said that Pranabda had expressed the view that the number two in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet should take over, after her assassination, as had happened after the death of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. But he always denied this. He was expelled from the Congress in 1986. But he did a “ghar wapasi” after three years in the wilderness. He had hoped that Sonia Gandhi would choose him as the PM in 2004. But she plumped for the “apolitical” Manmohan Singh, not the politically sharp Pranabda.
In 2007, he almost became President. But Sonia Gandhi ruled it out, saying she could “not spare him”. However, in 2012, he outmanoeuvred her, with the last-minute support of Mamata Banerjee. And he moved into the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Though he saw himself as a “constitutionally correct” President, he was not really cut out for a ceremonial role. Starved of the political tidbits, he would often call up his former Congress colleagues to find out what was happening in Parliament and in the Central Hall.
He was one of those old school politicians interested in wielding power, and not just in the perks of power. “My family has got a free house now,” he quipped in jest to a friend soon after being elected Rashtrapati. He was more used to 13 Talkatora Road.
He must have found it galling to be number two in Manmohan Singh’s ministry. After all, he had, as finance minister (1982-84), signed the order appointing Singh as RBI governor. And yet he put his best foot forward, assisting the PM in big and small ways. He headed innumerable GOMs and EGOMs. When Singh did not know how to handle tricky issues, even delicate ones like where to seat Sonia Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, it was Pranabda who came to his rescue. Manmohan Singh used to call him “Sir” and continued to do so, in private, even after he became PM.
As convener of the special UPA-Left committee set up in 2007 to sort out differences on the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, Pranabda displayed intellectual rigour. He held nine meetings with the Left leaders, framed the UPA’s responses, and would meet Prakash Karat and Jyoti Basu individually to soften them. But before the 10th meeting could take place, the Left withdrew support to the UPA.
While being a convinced secularist, Pranabda was also a devout Hindu. For two hours every morning, he recited the “Chandi Path” in his little temple at home. He also carried a copy of the Indian Constitution in his briefcase. He could recite from it chapter and verse, just as he knew from memory the 700 slokas about goddess Durga’s destruction of the demons. Once BJP leader Pramod Mahajan recited a sloka in Parliament. Pranabda got up and told him that his recitation was flawed. He then recited it the correct way. The then PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, counselled Mahajan never to argue with Pranabda.
Pranabda drew eyeballs when he attended the RSS’s annual programme in 2018. He spoke about liberal values and positioned himself as someone acceptable to both the Right and the Left. It was soon thereafter I found to my surprise — while talking to a group of traders in Delhi to ascertain their views on the GST— many making a pitch for Pranabda as the Opposition’s prime ministerial candidate for 2019: “Yeh sambhaal lenge”.
India will remember Pranabda for his contribution as a minister heading virtually every important ministry. He will also be remembered as a leader who saw consensus as the way to run a country as heterogeneous as India, and believed in holding conversations across the political divide.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 1, 2020 under the title ‘Bharat ratna’. The writer is a senior journalist