Is Pranab Mukherjee ready to become prime minister? This isn't a question that is likely to be asked in these humid times when Digvijaya Singh is busy endorsing the fact that Rahul Gandhi is of the right age and with enough experience to handle the top job. But thanks to Digvijaya, I can't help but bring up what was once an obvious question: Will Pranab-da finally become PM?
Mukherjee certainly has the qualifications for the job. He became a Congress party worker way back in 1952, entering the Rajya Sabha as a Congress MP in 1969. He had caught the eye of Indira Gandhi who picked up this young protégé of India Congress (and later Bangla Congress) leader Ajoy Mukherjee and by the time he became finance minister for the first time in 1982, he had become one of Mrs Gandhi's most trusted lieutenants. Within the Congress, eyebrows were raised when Mukherjee, leapfrogging the likes of PV Narasimha Rao and others, became a close political confidante of Mrs Gandhi. His star was high - when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated.
There's an urban legend that when Rajiv and Pranab, who were together in Calcutta when the news of Mrs Gandhi's assassination reached them, were flying back to Delhi, the latter - de facto the No. 2 in the government then - was telling someone in the plane that he would now have to get ready for his new role as No. 1. Whether this is political folklore or not, by the time Rajiv and Pranab landed,
Mrs Gandhi loyalists such as Makhan Lal Fotedar and others closed a ring around the Amethi MP and the rest, as they say, was a landslide victory for the Congress.
In this new scheme of things, Mukherjee not only found himself out of the Cabinet but in the wildnerness, deciding to float his own party Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. He found himself back in the Congress in 1989, but wasn't really back doing best what he does - playing the role of master tactician and political strategist - until Narasimha Rao, to stave off inner-party rivals after the Babri Masjid episode, brought in Mukherjee as a Union Cabinet minister.
By the time Sonia Gandhi became Congress president in 1998, Pranab-da was seen as a veteran Congressman. If the Congress owes its post-Pachmarhi shift to recognising a political landscape that takes into consideration the importance of coalition politics, the July 2003 Shimla declaration - "the coalition era is not a transient phase in Indian politics" - bore all the hallmarks of Pranab Mukherjee stepping on to the plate.
Which is why when Sonia Gandhi made her "supreme sacrifice" in 2004, the question popped up like a jack-in-the-box again: Will Pranab-da now become prime minister at last?
But with the sort of ingenuity that one comes across once in a blue moon, it was the non-political animal Manmohan Singh who was made the prime minister as a (safe?) choice. In a feudal political party with a family fetish set-up, one explanation for the unusual choice was that the automatic next-in-line was not yet ready.
By the time Rahul Gandhi did join politics in March 2004, I was giving Manmohan Singh another five years as UPA prime minister with Rahul "being ready" for the job around the time when the country would be going into general elections in 2009. Well, silly me didn't see one thing coming: the trust vote of July 2008 over the India-US nuclear deal.
As PM, the nuclear deal had been clearly Manmohan Singh's baby. With the Left parties pulling out support and the government being put to the test, Manmohan Singh found an important ally in his foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee. It was here that Pranab-da, in one of his finest moments, cobbled up his almost super-hero skills of negotiating and facilitating across party lines. The end result was Manmohan Singh coming out of Parliament stronger, and perhaps for the first time with a brand of his own.
While the nuclear deal itself was gobbledygook for an overwhelming number of voters in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the trust motion victory brought Brand Manmohan to the voters' notice. Along with his clean image, non-political background as a policy-academic man, it wasn't the UPA per se that brought home 262 seats to the kitty but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
So it doesn't come as much of a surprise to me that old faithful Digvijaya Singh is rolling up his sleeves, months before Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls and with the 2014 general elections looming, going about town injecting the idea that Rahul Gandhi is ready. Sure, there is no vacancy now but with a vacancy one day inevitable, one thing that the ruling party - which has never skipped a generation of Nehru-Gandhis as PM - won't like is a usurper in the hot seat. And if the swirling issue of corruption cases under the UPA does force a mid-term poll, don't baulk from asking that old question: Is Pranab-da ready?
Because readiness is not all.