He may not have made it to the country's top job for reportedly wearing his ambition on his sleeve over two decades ago, earning him the lasting grudge of the powerful Gandhi family. But External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress-led government's man for all seasons and a veteran trouble shooter, is set to run the country for the next few weeks while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recovers from bypass surgery.
A canny politician and a formidable negotiator who could sup with Marxists and rub shoulders with saffron leaders without anyone questioning his loyalty, Mukherjee is the man the Congress party turns to when the going gets tough be it rescuing the nuclear deal from ideological fanatics or stitching up the numbers for winning a confidence vote.
Although no official announcement has been made about Mukherjee officiating as the prime minister, a spokesperson for the government told IANS Mukherjee he will be chairing cabinet meetings in Manmohan Singh's absence. "He will also be handling finance ministry (additional charge of the prime minister) in his absence," the spokesperson added.
"He has vast administrative and political experience. He brings to the table a unique blend of original intellect and grassroots political experience," Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told IANS.
Even his party's critics admire Mukherjee's statecraft.
"Pranab Mukherjee is a politician with statesmanship. There is no statesmanship in our politics. Mukherjee knows this art," A Vijayaraghavan, deputy leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in the Rajya Sabha, told IANS.
The 74-year-old Mukherjee is no stranger to governance. Although he is barely two years younger than Manmohan Singh, his association with the Congress is at least a few decades longer than that of the prime minister.
When Mukherjee became finance minister in the Indira Gandhi government 1982-84, Manmohan Singh was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. In the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, where he started as defence minister, he now heads over half a dozen inter-ministerial committees in areas ranging from telecom spectrum to finance, and no big decision is taken without his nod.
In fact, Mukherjee, the number two in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, is seen as a natural for handling prime ministerial responsibilities. He is perhaps the only minister in the UPA government who has been finance and defence minister before he returned to South Block for a second innings as foreign minister over two years ago.
A workaholic who is known to take cabinet files home and pore over them till well past midnight, Mukherjee is now spearheading India's diplomatic offensive against Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai savagery. Not a day passes without Mukherjee putting Pakistan on notice for its alleged involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks. The media-savvy politician is much in demand for sound byte-starved television journalists.
Mukherjee, who is currently serving his sixth term in parliament but who won his first popular election only in 2004, has often surprised his colleagues with his photogenic memory of some stray incident that occurred decades ago or what he read in some book years ago.
An outstanding MP, remembered by many for his impassioned defence of the nuclear deal, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honour, in 2007. He studied law at the University of Calcutta and worked as a teacher, journalist and lawyer before taking a plunge into politics.
He alienated the Gandhi family when he is said to have indicated he should get the top job after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. He himself has denied that he had voiced his ambition then, but the thinking still persists a quarter-century later in the absence of any clarification from the Gandhi household.
This consigned him to virtual political wilderness as Rajiv Gandhi excluded him from his cabinet. His languishing political career was revived when then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao appointed him first as deputy chairman of the planning commission and later as external affairs minister (1995-96).
However, the archetypal survivor that Mukherjee is, he soon mended fences with the Gandhi family and mentored Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi in the finer aspects of politics in the 1990s. Fortune smiled on him again when the UPA won the elections in 2004, but the top job again eluded him despite being the most experienced politician in the party.
It intrigued many when Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, chose Manmohan Singh for the top job, over other contenders that included Mukherjee. Party insiders point out that Mukherjee was kept out for precisely his strengths that could have made him an independent power centre in the ruling combine. The trust deficit came into play again when Mukherjee was briefly considered for the position of president, but the party opted for a little-known loyalist in Pratibha Patil.
This pattern has again repeated itself with all eyes on Mukherjee as Manmohan Singh went in for a bypass surgery Saturday. He will be handling the prime ministerial responsibilities, including chairing cabinet meetings, but he is nobody's favourite for the top job in the next elections.