This morning, as Pranab Mukherjee surveys his face in the bathroom mirror of his North Block office before leaving for Parliament with the Budget papers, an image from the distant past may be waiting there to surprise him. It is of a little boy standing on the bank of the Kooey, a hilly stream in Birbhum district of Bengal, with a stack of textbooks balanced on his head and a coarse towel tied to his waist. He’d wade and swim across the stream everyday to Kirnahar High School, where he was a student, many miles away from home. How much has the lad travelled, the 75-year-old statesman of today will wonder!
It is the longest way, in fact, that anyone high on today’s political ladder has covered, Mukherjee being the last representative of an era when the common man could aspire to make his mark without being exceptionally lucky in birth, or downright amoral (such as Lalu Yadav). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is surely an exception — the only exception perhaps. But he and Mukherjee have traversed different paths, Singh’s being the scholarly and bureaucratic. For Mukherjee, however, it has been a steady climb through the committee rooms of the Congress party and Parliament’s halls and lobbies. Singh has, of course, been fortunate to climb that extra inch to the top. But Mukherjee knows how to face the odds with a smile, or to wait.
In 2004, when Sonia Gandhi’s unassailable ‘inner voice’ named Singh and not him as prime minister, he reportedly quipped: “I am comfortable at the height where destiny has put me.” Besides, the perceived difference in ‘height’ doesn’t really matter much. At one point in the life of UPA 1, Mukherjee headed as many as 42 Empowered Groups of Ministers (EGoMs). He still has an impressive 17 EGoMs under him. It is a known fact that with Indian democracy becoming increasingly consensual, real power resides not so much in the Houses but in their committees, and not so much with a single minister but with the ministerial groups. Mukherjee’s political heft is unquestionable.
But, more importantly, PKM, as he is called by his colleagues in affection and awe, is a consummate politician. It is a badge that unfortunately very few contemporary politicians can wear. (A.B. Vajpayee is an exception, but he is no longer a contemporary.) It is Mukherjee’s razor-sharp political judgement that overshadows the minor question marks — such as his being a closet dirigiste, not to speak of his mercurial temper or his home-grown English, which the smart set of his party has named ‘Pranabese’. But it is a pleasure to hear the argument that rings out of his misplaced sibilants, subtly structured, brilliantly argued, and delivered with a rich cadence.
It was left to another master politician, Indira Gandhi, to discover this little master when, in 1969, Mukherjee, as a member of the Bangla Congress, a breakaway Congress group, delivered in the Rajya Sabha a speech that foreshadowed the vivisection of Pakistan — still two years ahead. Maybe Indira thought how could this five foot wonder, son of a freedom fighter from faraway Birbhum, peep into her innermost thoughts. Within a year Mukherjee and his faction was in the Congress. As a junior minister with independent charge of revenue and banking departments, he was quickly making headlines with a crackdown on the then Bombay smuggling underworld don who had become a law unto himself. Haji Mastan, whom he got arrested, was the inspiration behind emerging superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s cult movie of the time, Deewar.
Indira hit it off so well with her favourite find that, after her return to power in 1980 from the post-Emergency oblivion,
she promptly dispatched the grave and stodgy R. Venkataraman from the Ministry of Finance to Defence and, in January 1982, led Mukherjee to the room in North Block that he’d love most through the rest of his career.
As Finance Minister under Indira Gandhi, Mukherjee had a fiery innings. He surprised the world by sending back a $ 1.1 billion installment of International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, its political message being that debtor nations might henceforth return the high-interest loans, leaving the Bretton Woods Shylocks red-faced. A cautious reformer (an experienced economic bureaucrat puts him halfway between Indira and Manmohan) he was nevertheless the first to stoke up expenditure without letting inflation get out of hand. He also opened the NRI investment window, which pioneered sweeping changes in India’s image as a destination of foreign funds. When he gave a 1 hour 35 minutes-long budget speech, Indira, the acknowledged queen of sarcasm, commented, “The shortest finance minister has delivered the longest budget speech.” But she was undoubtedly proud.
The boy who swam across the river to school almost coasted in Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2007. There he could hang up his boots — only if he hadn’t so many more things to do. Like making the India-US civil nuclear agreement sail through despite threat of the government being toppled. And today, in a few hours, he must stroke forward to unveil a budget with deficit at a record high and little hope that the economy will keep growing if he advocates thrift. Can he maintain his winning streak?
Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal