It was then that the party’s slide to near extinction began. I desperately hoped his counsel would be available when he left the lofty heights of Raisina Hill, but that was not to be. I asked him when he was in his last days in the constitutional office what his plans were after leaving office. In reply, he elliptically cited the precedent of Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, the first Governor-General of independent India, reminding me that Rajaji had not only become India’s Home Minister on demitting office, but even the chief minister of Madras province. That was typical of Mukherjee, the statesman: Never disclose all your cards, but always bear precedent in mind if you propose to do something unorthodox. I never knew why his wise advice was not sought, but we are certainly suffering the consequences.
Of Mukherjee being dropped by Rajiv Gandhi from the Cabinet, Coomi Kapoor has hinted in this newspaper (IE, September 1, ‘A chapter ends: Pranabda, gentleman for all seasons’) that it was at Arun Nehru’s behest — probably so. I never thought it appropriate to raise the topic in my many “nostalgia” conversations with Mukherjee. But after he had moved into Rajaji Marg, I went to meet him on finding myself in some despair after months of suspension from the Congress with no sign of any reprieve. This was after Narendra Modi twisted my words to make the outrageous claim that I had resorted to casteist abuse against the Prime Minister. The party High Command (without then or, indeed, ever asking me whether in fact I had said what Modi had claimed I had said) dropped me from the ranks of the party, in a manner similar to what Rajiv had apparently done to Pranabda. Mukherjee’s answer shook me.
He said he had never been told what his sin was, but two years after his expulsion, Santosh Mohan Deb had called on him to give him the PM’s instructions to proceed immediately to Tripura to helm the Congress campaign there against the long-serving CPI(M) chief minister Nripen Chakraborty. Mukherjee protested that he was not even in the Congress. Other emissaries arrived bearing the same message. He asked to see Rajiv Gandhi. When Pranabda arrived for the meeting, Rajiv Gandhi repeated his instructions. Mukherjee said how could he when it was Rajiv Gandhi himself who had ordered him expelled. Rajiv Gandhi claimed he did not even know that Mukherjee had been expelled and he insisted that Mukherjee leave for Tripura without delay. Mukherjee did and we won Tripura for the first and only time ever. So, he ended, my suspension would continue indefinitely until suddenly one day I would find myself back in harness without explanation. That was how the party worked.
It was this ability to carry no baggage and, above all, no resentment at having been wronged that he exemplified and imparted to others. It uniquely fitted him to be the principal arbiter of inner-party and intra-cabinet differences. He understood that people held opinions out of conviction; they should be allowed to feel that their views had been taken seriously and brought around to believing that the other person’s views had to be taken equally seriously while examining the common ground that they did not even know existed between them. Mukherjee gently pushed the opposing views towards that common ground, which is what made him the master troubleshooter he was.
He used these skills to negotiate the difficult shoals that kept political parties apart. These were on display when he was tasked with securing support across ideological barriers. He did not always succeed, but everyone left the chamber feeling better than when they entered.
He also knew how to apply balm to hurt feelings. Under his leadership, I had been appointed to a drafting committee to prepare the Congress manifesto for the 2009 elections. He drew up the broad guidelines and the list of ministers from whom I should source the material. Highly appreciative of the outcome, he took the draft to higher planes only to find the draft summarily rejected. He was left with the painful duty of informing me that my Herculean efforts had been junked. He did so, adding that he would ensure the draft would be published as a separate election brief. That never happened, but the blow to my bruised ego was softened.
A final memory: The Rajya Sabha had been reduced to chaos for three days because of my opening quip about Arun Jaitley, who had called me a “half-Maoist”. The chair had offered to expunge the word, but the BJP insisted I apologise. Meanwhile, Jairam Ramesh fumed because the disruption was holding up a Bill he had piloted. Pranabda sent for me and patiently explained that the word I had used was “unparliamentary” in the Rajya Sabha where a previous chairman had so ruled on a House of Commons precedent, but it could be legitimately used in the Lok Sabha because they had their own vocabulary of “unparliamentary” words. I could live with that. The Rajya Sabha got back to work.
It is that Pranabda who, I believe, is irreplaceable. A political genius has left us.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 2, 2020 under the title ‘The arbiter of differences’. The writer is a former Union minister