Pranab Mukherjee: The vice-captain who went on to be referee
India’s former President, Bharat Ratna Pranab Mukherjee, whose public life spanned more than 5 decades, died after battling a brain surgery at the Army Research and Referral Hospital on August 31, leaving behind a rich legacy of old-school politics, three children, countless friends across parties and a diary—the only chronicle of his life from a nondescript village in undivided Bengal to the ultimate edifices of federal power.
He held ten ministerial portfolios, signed historic agreements such as GATT and Indo-US Nuclear treaty, positioned himself as a trusted support system to at least three Congress presidents and a reliable vice-captain to as many Prime Ministers. Then, as the country’s first citizen, he had a vantage view of politics at the highest level from Rashtrapati Bhavan and often acted as a conscience keeper of national polity.
His death elicited an outpouring of grief across the political spectrum, a reminder of Pranab Mukherjee’s brand of politics that puts a premium on personal equations—the reason why everyone called him Pranab da and not the distant Pranab babu.
Mukherjee was born in Mirati, a nondescript village in undivided Bengal on December 11, 1935. His father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, involved in India’s struggle for independence, would go on to serve in the West Bengal Legislative Council between 1952 and 1964 from Congress. Senior Mukherjee was also a member of the All India Congress Committee.
Pranab has spoken of how, as a young boy, he had to walk for miles, and during the monsoon swim across an overflowing river, to reach school. But he doggedly pursued education. For him, India’s Independence in 1947 meant simple dreams; a footbridge across the river and better food.
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By 1963, with degrees in political science and history (a Masters) and law, Mukherjee was teaching political science at Vidyanagar College and Howrah Chaitanya College in West Bengal. The young boy from Mirati might have thought he had arrived – but in truth, he was just getting started.
In 1969, he was involved in V K Krishna Menon’s successful run in the Midnapore Lok Sabha constituency (Menon was contesting as an independent). The same year, Bangla Congress, a regional offshoot of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress, sent him to the Rajya Sabha (Two years later, it merged with the main party). He had four more terms in the Rajya Sabha (1975, 1981, 1993, and 1999) before he won 2004 Lok Sabha election in Jangipur. He retained his seat in 2009 and after three years, he became President of India.
Through these four decades, he was a key player in the political mainstream, expect for the period between 1984 and 1989, when he was sidelined by the late Rajiv Gandhi, who considered Mukherjee a rival for the PM’s post after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In 1986, he even formed his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress in West Bengal, but merged it with the Congress, after making up with Rajiv Gandhi, in 1989.
While Mukherjee himself has said the Prime Minister’s office was not for him, it was widely believed that his biggest ambition was the Prime Minister’s office in the leafy corner of the South Block. It remained a distant dream, but he did ascend Raisina Hill, occupied various other corners of North and South Block, and finally settled for a tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
His first PM, of course, was Indira Gandhi. He was a junior minister of industry in her 1973 cabinet. In 1982, he rose to be finance minister in her government. Then came his brief stint in the wilderness. But he was soon back.
Jairam Ramesh’s semi-autobiographical book “To the Brink and Back” narrates how Mukherjee prepared a draft roadmap of the new government and its economic priorities in 1991 before P V Narasimha Rao became the PM. Mukherjee was the chief architect behind India’s accession to the WTO in January 1995.
While the prospects of India acceding to an all-encompassing multilateral trade regime met with strong domestic opposition, Mukherjee convinced Rao and later signed the WTO Trade Agreement. And a year later, when Rao—sidelined into oblivion—needed a Delhi resident to support his bail application, Mukherjee’s wife (she owned a house in GK 2) signed the documents in the police station.
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Mukherjee’s relationship with Manmohan Singh was perhaps the most complex and, at the same time, most rewarding. Having served under Mukherjee in various capacities, Singh initially continued to call his former boss “sir”, much to the latter’s discomfort. Finally, when Mukherjee announced it was untenable to be addressed as sir by his boss, Singh resorted to Pranab ji while the adamant Bengali called him Dr. Singh.
He worked hard under Singh, but like most members of the UPA cabinet, his loyalty was tilted towards Sonia Gandhi. Mukherjee enjoyed unbridled power, led the defence, finance and foreign affairs ministries, headed more than 100 groups of ministers (GoMs; the UPA’s preferred tool for policy-making and trouble shooting) and had a say in every policy, right from the creation of an anti corruption ombudsman to the stimulus package of 2008 which saved India from economic ruin.
To be sure, Singh and Mukherjee differed on quite a few issues. There was exasperation in the PMO at the way some Mukherjee aides tried to run the show in the ministry. But Singh, never missed seeking out Mukherjee’s counsel on key issues of economy and foreign policy. When the Pakistan PM said he would come to Mohali to watch the world cup match between the two countries in 2011with Singh, the latter asked Mukherjee what he should discuss. Mukherjee retorted, “anything under the sun except serious bilateral issues.” (The finance minister had little idea about one-day cricket. Later he would praise Singh’s patience for spending a whole day in a stadium)
Days after Singh’s retirement in 2014, this writer asked his principal secretary TKA Nair, why the PM, a progressive economic thinker allowed the controversial proposal on retrospective tax in the 2012 budget (a budget is always approved by the PM days before introduction), and Nair replied that the PM perhaps couldn’t tell Mukherjee anything considering the latter’s stature and experience.
There was an effort to make him the President in 2007. The Congress proposed the names of Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil and Sushil Kumar Shinde to allies as possible presidential candidate. But there was no replacement for Mukherjee in the government in the early years of the UPA, and the party decided it couldn’t afford to lose him.
Finally, in 2012, the chance came again. The party still wanted him, but eventually Sonia Gandhi, the party president had little option but to back Mukherjee; any other candidate would have meant a contest. In a farewell function for him, Gandhi quipped that she would miss Mukherjee’s tantrums.
Pranab Mukherjee went to Rashtrapati Bhavan, a graceful exit from active politics. But soon, the customary equation between the President and the PM in the republic’s inner circle took a new turn when Narendra Modi, a man straight from state politics, met Mukherjee, a perpetual national player. Their bond grew quickly. The President often advised the PM on foreign affairs and other issues. Modi has publicly acknowledged Mukherjee’s contributions saying, “he held my hand in my initial days in Delhi.”
The equation didn’t suffer in Mukherjee’s post-retirement life. Senior NDA ministers regularly queued up at Rajaji Marg for his counsel.
A party colleague once described Mukherjee as the Shashi Kapoor of politics— always under the shadow of the bigger stars (PMs). But Pranab Mukherjee didn’t breathe his last as a loser. He didn’t have a godfather, yet he made it to the very top. From an ordinary background, he became a towering figure of contemporary politics. He wanted to be a teacher but life brought him to politics. It’s been a long walk from Mirati village to corridors of power in Delhi, or from his first certificate of victory in Rajya Sabha in 1960s to the Bharat Ratna.
Till a few days before he went to hospital for the final time, he diligently maintained his diary, as he did for the last 50 years. What tales it can tell now.