When he was passed over for the post of prime minister, Pranab Mukherjee quipped - as the colour flushed his face in amusement and perhaps, unspoken cynicism — that it was because he couldn’t speak Hindi fluently. After a marathon day on the election trail in Bengal three years ago — 2004 and 2009 were his first victories in a direct election to Parliament — the finance minister gave me the example of PV Narasimha Rao.
The reason Rao became PM — even though he was from the south of the Vindhyas — Mukherjee argued, was because he was proficient in Hindi. He then quoted K Kamaraj — the all-powerful kingmaker and southern strongman who had turned down a plea from some party colleagues to be PM after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, with the famous retort, “No Hindi, No English. How?”
Over the years, Mukherjee appears to have become philosophical about being repeatedly denied the top job. His insistence on not having the tools of Hindi to communicate effectively is especially ironic given that he is widely regarded as the only leader in the beleaguered UPA today who knows how to win friends and influence enemies.
Even the strident Opposition is affectionately deferential to him with LK Advani once joking in Parliament that he could not imagine how the government would run without the finance minister.
Maybe the Congress worries about exactly that scenario with harried leaders describing him as too valuable to spare for the presidency. Mukherjee has been down this road before in 2007 — when despite an active endorsement from the Left parties — he did not end up becoming the Congress nominee. Instead, Pratibha Patil was pulled out from anonymity as the surprise candidate, provoking Karan Singh, another presidential hopeful to remark that “sometimes it’s not the best man, but the best woman who wins.”
So is Mukherjee repeatedly being punished for his competence and indispensability? Or do the shadows of scepticism still linger from the 1980s when he briefly walked out on the Congress and tried to start his own party only to return as the prodigal who became pivotal to the functioning of successive governments.
Frankly, the conspiratorial whispers about a trust deficit lack logic given the extreme dependence of the party leadership on Mukherjee to pave the exit out of every troublesome maze. As the senior-most — and longest-serving member of the Congress Working Committee — Mukherjee cannot be both the man entrusted with the task of dousing multiple forest fires while simultaneously being regarded as a bit of an inflammable entity himself. The theory just doesn’t add up.
When he didn’t make it as president in 2007, Mukherjee brushed aside reports of hurt and betrayal. “No, rather it satisfied me, because I was told by no less a person than the Congress president that I require you for certain work which is assigned to you and it is my conviction that this work you will have to do. So why should I be having any hard feelings?” he said to me when I repeatedly asked if he travelled with a sense of disappointment.
But at the end of his political innings, isn’t Rashtrapati Bhavan a fitting pavilion for a man whom Salman Khurshid called “The Wall” for the Congress batting order? Mukherjee — who has worked with every Congress PM since Indira Gandhi, has made it clear that he does not see himself contesting another election. In fact, he doesn’t even see himself as part of the Union Cabinet again, were the Congress to get another bid at power. He’s made it clear that it’s time for him to “rest and study a little”- making the next two years his last waltz with political power.
So will all the speculation around him being the presidential candidate end differently in 2012 than it did in 2007? Knowing the status-quoist instincts of the over-cautious Congress party, this may well end up being a déjà vu moment for Mukherjee. And yet, the political fragility of the UPA and the dependence of the Congress on the allies could end up scripting a new ending to this political drama.
The chances of APJ Abdul Kalam having a second go at Raisina Hill seem to have dimmed with even some BJP allies objecting to the party’s unilateral announcement of his candidature. Hamid Ansari, the vice president, may get the backing of several regional players as well as the Left parties. But his past association with the Communists is likely to keep the Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on the other side of the fence.
As Union minister, a mercurial Banerjee crossed swords with the short-tempered finance minister more than once at Cabinet meetings. As Bengal CM she has had numerous run-ins with him over a debt-waiver package for her state. There is hardly any love lost between the two leaders whose fraught equation is also rooted in the regional rivalries of West Bengal politics. Yet, paradoxically, she may well support him for president in the name of Bengali pride.
Many believe, despite Sushma Swaraj’s public rejection of support for any Congress nominee, the selection of Mukherjee as candidate would queer the pitch in Parliament in unforeseen ways and could yet create wide cross-party support.
Mukherjee has always said that the post of president is not one you ask for, but one that you are requested to step into. Now the Congress has to make up its mind. To keep the presidency within the party fold is it ready to reward its most solid batsman with a Man of the Match prize? Will Mukherjee get his due? Or should we brace ourselves for the abrupt surprise of another Pratibha Patil moment?
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)
The views expressed by the author are personal