Former President and Bharat Ratna Pranab Mukherjee passed away Monday at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in New Delhi where he had undergone surgery earlier this month. He was 84.
Probably no Indian politician can match Mukherjee’s enviable record as a long-distance runner. He had a ringside view of Indian politics for some five decades, though in his four-part memoir, he hid more secrets than he revealed of his eventful life.
He was the Congress party’s Man for All Seasons, whose services were often required for crisis management because of his intimate knowledge of both government and the party. Mukherjee’s career started as a junior minister in the Indira Gandhi government in the 1970s and ended when he demitted office as President of India in 2017.
In the decades in between, he held almost every important ministerial portfolio at some point. A five-time member of Rajya Sabha and twice of Lok Sabha, Mukherjee was the unchallenged authority on parliamentary procedure and laws.
But the one post which eluded him was that of Prime Minister, a position he believed was his due. But twice his ambitions were thwarted, just when he assumed the post was within grasp. In 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Mukherjee felt that as the most senior minister and by far the most qualified, he was the obvious candidate to take her place. He did not comprehend that Rajiv Gandhi, then a political novice who was not even a minister, would be his party’s natural choice. In 2004, after the UPA victory when Sonia Gandhi declined to be Prime Minister, Mukherjee again assumed that he was the obvious candidate. Instead, Sonia selected Manmohan Singh, a man who had once worked under Mukherjee as RBI Governor when he was Finance Minister.
Mukherjee was at first reluctant to work under Singh, a civil servant most of his life with scant political experience. But Sonia persuaded him, and he acquiesced.
Both Rajiv and Sonia were always wary of Mukherjee, even though it was he who was indirectly responsible for installing Sonia as president of the Congress. In 1998, Sitaram Kesri, then Congress president, refused to step down gracefully and the party was in a fix since its constitution was silent on how a president is to be removed. The resourceful Mukherjee zeroed in on a clause which empowered the CWC to resort to “appropriate solutions,’’ subject to ratification by the AICC. He took advantage of this vague clause to appoint Sonia as president, even though Kesri was still hanging on to the post.
Blessed with a phenomenal memory and a razor-sharp mind, Mukherjee was a shrewd analyst of all things political.
Once at an Idea Exchange programme of The Indian Express, he stunned his audience by rattling off dates and victory margins of diverse elections held several decades earlier. Pritish Nandy, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, famously and mischievously described him, “As the Man who knew Too Much’’. It was a headline which was the last straw for Rajiv Gandhi, already suspicious of Mukherjee for telling the media in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, that due constitutional procedure would have to be followed before anyone could be sworn in as Prime Minister.
To Mukherjee’s shock, Rajiv dropped him from the Cabinet when he took over as Prime Minister although he had served the PM’s mother faithfully in several key positions, including as Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha and Finance Minister. Further humiliation was to follow, and he was even removed from the Congress Working Committee. In April 1986, shortly after The Illustrated Weekly interview, Mukherjee was expelled from the Congress for six years. He went on to form his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC), which failed miserably in the West Bengal assembly elections.
In his memoirs, Mukherjee confessed he believed that Gandhi’s hostility toward him was fuelled by Arun Nehru who spread word that he had aspirations to be made interim Prime Minister following Indira Gandhi’s death, which in all probability he did.
As abruptly as he was ousted from the party, Mukherjee was mysteriously reinstated in 1988. By then Arun Nehru, and V P Singh had deserted the Congress. Even PV Narasimha Rao, a good friend whom Mukherjee had actively supported as Congress president, did not initially induct Mukherjee into his cabinet in 1991 when he became Prime Minister — he was appointed vice chairperson of the Planning Commission instead. Rao confided to Mukherjee that he would tell him the secret of his non-inclusion someday, but he never did.
Whatever their past differences, as Prime Minister for two terms, Manmohan Singh relied heavily on Mukherjee, who handled many of his responsibilities. It was Mukherjee who decided the seating order of the ministers in Parliament and presided over some 95 GoMs (Group of Ministers) and EGoMs. The preponderance of GoMs was his shrewd way of establishing an effective decision- making process by virtually bypassing Cabinet meetings in a coalition government subjected to pressures in different directions.
During Manmohan Singh’s tenure, Mukherjee held at different times the three top portfolios — Defence, External Affairs and Finance — apart from being Leader of the House. As External Affairs Minister, he oversaw the signing of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement with the Bush government. Mukherjee had also held the Finance portfolio under both Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Ten years before economic liberalisation, he encouraged NRIs to invest in the Indian economy. He was also responsible for many tax reforms and introduced a measure of accountability.
However, his last years as Finance Minister were marred by some controversy. He even got his office de-bugged by a private agency since he suspected it was being tapped by a Cabinet colleague. Whenever he held economic portfolios, his name was frequently linked to a prominent industrial house.
One of Mukherjee’s many strengths was his ability to develop cordial relations with leaders across the political spectrum. When the Left parties opposed the Patents Amendment negotiations in the UPA, Mukherjee called on his good friend, the late CPM leader Jyoti Basu, to convince his party to support a diluted Bill. He observed dryly, “An imperfect Bill is better than no Bill.’’
The late Arun Jaitley named Mukherjee as unquestionably the man he admired most in the Congress party. After he stepped down as President of India in 2017, Mukherjee took the controversial step of visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur and meeting its chief Mohan Bhagwat. The Modi government awarded him the Bharat Ratna just a year ago. It was one of the happiest moments of his life, his daughter Sharmistha recalls.
He owed more to non-Congress friends rather than his own party for his election as President of India. Sonia Gandhi had reservations about Mukherjee as a presidential candidate even in the 2007 election when the Left parties proposed his name. She claimed his services were invaluable to the Congress. In 2012, there seemed to be a general consensus over his name, except for Sonia. The BJP was ready to support him if the Congress officially nominated him.
But Mamata Banerjee left her no option but to announce his name after Banerjee spoke out vehemently against his candidature. In fact, the TMC leader secretly backed her fellow Bengali and sent a private message to him, “Tell Dada not to worry about me.”
Mukherjee came from a humble middle-class family of undivided Bengal, unlike the aristocratic bhadralog backgrounds of most senior Bengali leaders in the Congress at the Centre. Mukherjee’s father was a freedom fighter, MLC and a member of the CWC. After completing his MA in Political Science and obtaining a degree in law, Mukherjee was a college lecturer for a short while. He caught Indira Gandhi’s attention when he acted as a polling agent for Krishna Menon who won the Midnapore by-election as an independent in 1969. Mrs Gandhi brought him to Delhi and made him a Rajya Sabha MP. Shortly afterwards, he became a deputy minister.
During the Emergency, he was close to Sanjay Gandhi and was later indicted by the Shah Commission for exercising extra constitutional powers in defiance of established norms. I met him for the first time during the Emergency. Although aware that my husband was a MISA prisoner, he was his usual courteous self.
A criticism that rankled Mukherjee was that his detractors described him as a pipe-smoking armchair politician because of his long years in the Upper House. Late in life, he proved he could also be a grassroots politician by winning the Lok Sabha elections from Jangipur in 2004. He was re-elected from the constituency in 2009, an achievement that he was very proud of.
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