In what has caused quite a stir across the country, former President and stalwart of the Indian National Congress, Pranab Mukherjee, reached Nagpur on Wednesday to address an event organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Mukherjee’s decision has confounded leaders across the political spectrum, with some questioning his loyalty towards the party with which he was associated throughout his political career. There are others who are citing that Pranab’s participation in the RSS event would give credence and respectability to an organisation known to be intolerant towards constitutional ideals, particularly those of secularism.
Mukherjee’s acceptance of the invite from Nagpur was followed by rumours of his daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee (head of the women’s wing of Delhi Congress), quitting the Congress in favour of the BJP. Sharmistha on Thursday, however, strongly denied the rumours, stating that she was in politics because she believed in Congress. “Would rather leave politics than leave Congress,” she tweeted out.
Like Sharmistha, her father, too, has been a staunch Congress loyalist since days preceding the country’s Independence. In his book, “The dramatic decade: The Indira Gandhi years”, Mukherjee fondly reminisced about his childhood years when his family would hoist the Congress flag at their home every year on January 26. He wrote about how his family devotedly supported the Congress and spread its message of independence along the length and breadth of the country. “Father traveled from village to village, sharing meals with the locals and preaching the Congress ideology,” he wrote. Mukherjee began his political career in 1969 when Indira Gandhi, on recognising his acumen, made him a member of the Congress. Soon after he became a member of the Rajya Sabha and in the ensuing years, swiftly rose up the political ladder under the tutelage of Gandhi. However, in the years following the assassination of Gandhi, Mukherjee, though still steadfastly loyal to the Congress, slipped into an uneasy relationship with the party.
An assassination that shook the country
At the end of October in 1984, Mukherjee and Rajiv Gandhi were touring West Bengal when they received the message about Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In an autobiographical account in his book, “The turbulent years: 1980-1996”, Mukherjee recalled the moment when they received the news. “Tears started rolling down my face, and I wept inconsolably, managing to compose myself only after some time and with great effort,” he wrote. After all, it was under the guidance of the Indira Gandhi that Mukherjee had enriched his political knowledge and attained great heights in his career.
It was not without reason that Mukherjee was frequently referred by her as the ‘man for all seasons.’ In 1978 when the Congress split, he was one of the few who stood strongly beside Gandhi. He recalled in his book his father’s advice to him to stand by her. “He told me: ‘I hope you will not do anything that will make me ashamed of you. It is when you stand by a person in his or her hour of crisis that you reveal your own humanity,’” he wrote, adding that “his meaning was clear, and I didn’t then or later waver from my loyalty to Indira Gandhi”. He stood by her, supporting every move of hers when she was being criticised for declaring Emergency and was also there to share the blame after the Emergency was lifted.
When Gandhi suddenly died in 1984, many thought Mukherjee would be the one to fill in her shoes. On previous such instances, like after the death of Nehru in 1964 and that of Shastri in 1966, following parliamentary customs, a ranking member of Parliament was called upon by the President to take over the prime ministerial position. It was expected that President Zail Singh, in keeping with the tradition, would have called Mukherjee, who was then the Finance Minister, to take on the role of acting prime minister. However, that was not to be.
Mukherjee, in his book, wrote that in earlier instances when a prime minister passed away, the death was natural. This case was an extraordinary situation since the incumbent prime minister had been assassinated, and not only was a political void created, but also there were a large number of uncertainties around the incident. In such an atmosphere, while still on his way back to Delhi from West Bengal, he along with other Congress members with him, decided that it was necessary that Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi take the prime ministerial reign. But the matter had been settled in Delhi itself even before they landed. Minister of Fertilizers Vasant Sathe reportedly took the lead in arguing for Rajiv’s election.
A few months later, however, Mukherjee would receive his strongest blow. In the parliamentary elections that were held in December 1984, Congress emerged victorious with a massive 414 seats in its kitty. When Rajiv Gandhi announced his new cabinet, it was the absence of Pranab Mukherjee’s name that was most conspicuous. “When I learned of my ouster from the Cabinet, I was shell-shocked and flabbergasted. I could not believe it. But I composed myself and sat alongside my wife as she watched the swearing-in ceremony on television,” he wrote.
After being ousted from Parliament, Mukherjee founded the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC) in West Bengal in 1986. Three years later, however, it merged with the Congress after reaching a compromise with Rajiv Gandhi.
Another lost chance at being prime minister
In 1991, the country witnessed yet another assassination. This time it was Rajiv Gandhi’s. After his death, however, Mukherjee’s career is known to have gone through a revival of sorts. Under the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, Mukherjee was appointed the deputy chairman of the Indian planning commission and subsequently, in 1995 he became the External Affairs minister.
After the death of Rajiv Gandhi, his wife Sonia Gandhi was asked to take on the prime ministerial role. However, she refused, exhibiting consistent reluctance to enter politics for a long time thereafter. It was only in 1997 that she joined the party as a primary member in the Calcutta plenary session and later became a party leader in 1998. Days later, she was offered the party president post, which she accepted. Reportedly, Pranab Mukherjee was one of the strongest architects of her ascendancy to the post of party president.
It is believed that Mukherjee played a key role in educating Sonia, mentoring her to tackle situations the way her mother-in-law had once done.
After the 2004 elections, when the Congress was elected to return to power, Sonia Gandhi was an obvious choice of the party for the post of prime minister. However, in the midst of severe criticism against her taking control of the government on the ground of her being of foreign descent, she declined the prime ministership. There was much anticipation then of Mukherjee being offered the prime ministerial position. He too would appear to have anticipated the same. “The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for prime minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. This expectation was possibly based on the fact that I had extensive experience in government, while Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist finance minister,” he wrote in an account in his book ‘The coalition years (1996-2012)’.
However, it was Manmohan Singh who emerged as Gandhi’s choice for prime minister, taking away yet another opportunity from Mukherjee to accede to the topmost government position. In 2012, after more than four decades of active work in the Indian political landscape, he was elected as the 13th President of the country. Many believe Mukherjee’s elevation as President was a compensation made by the Congress for passing him over for the prime minister’s post a number of times.