Pranab Mukherjee will go down in history as the most accomplished politician after Indira Gandhi, a leader who narrowly missed being the Prime Minister on at least two occasions, but finally rose to be the first citizen of the country.
Astute, perceptive and equally well versed with the nature of Indian politics, Pranab Da, as he was called by his well-wishers and adversaries, was consulted by every single politician including the current Prime Minister on issues of national importance. There is hardly a single leader in the Congress, who has not addressed him as “Sir”. Breaking protocol, Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister, drove to Yojna Bhawan, to call on Mukherjee, the then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, to have his inputs prior to the presentation of the Union Budget.
On his part, Mukherjee was always conscious about propriety and public conduct and, therefore, was a stickler for observing the best traditions of political behaviour. Shubhbratta Bhattacharya, a senior journalist, who worked closely with him, recalls that in one-on-one meetings with Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Pranab would address him as “PV”. However, whenever, they met publicly, he would extend all the respect and refer to his close friend as “Mr Prime Minister”.
Manmohan Singh was not the only one who came to his office to meet him. Even Sharad Pawar as the Defence Minister had the highest regards for him; he would also choose to visit him in his office instead of insisting that Pranab Da come to his chamber in the South Block.
Pranab’s rise in politics commenced in the mid-1970s when Kamal Nath, a close friend and classmate of Sanjay Gandhi, who knew him from Calcutta, pushed for him to be appointed as a minister of state in the Finance Ministry after K.R. Ganesh was sacked. Indira Gandhi had a high opinion about the young politician from Bengal; he was a deputy transport minister under Kamlapati Tripathi, and prodded by Sanjay, she took no time in giving him the independent charge of Revenue and Banking, thereby bifurcating the Finance Ministry which was then headed by C. Subramanium. Pranab Da was then referred as “MRB”, the short for Minister for Revenue and Banking.
His grasp over the political scene was widely recognised and he played a major role when the Congress split for the second time in 1978. He was rewarded for his loyalty by Sanjay and made the treasurer of Congress (I).
Both Indira and Sanjay were aware that Pranab could deliver readily on tasks assigned to him. Although, in 1980, he unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election, much against Sanjay’s advice, yet he was inducted into the Union Cabinet as the Commerce Minister and given the additional charge of Steels and Mine. Sitaram Kesri succeeded him as the treasurer.
After Sanjay’s passing away, Pranab moved very close to the then Prime Minister, and she first appointed him as the Finance Minister and later made him the convener of an informal group which advised her on political affairs. Other members of the four-member group were R. Venkataraman, Narasimha Rao and N.D. Tewari with Makhan Lal Fotedar being present as Indira Gandhi’s representative at the meetings. Decisions regarding whom to appoint or replace were taken by this Committee on Political Affairs.
It is a well-known fact that whenever Indira Gandhi travelled abroad, it was Pranab Da who presided over the Cabinet meetings, thus he was the undeclared number two in the government. Therefore, when she was assassinated, it was presumed by Pranab Da that he would succeed her. In fact, his insistence on being the PM in the aircraft which was bringing back Rajiv Gandhi to the capital, created a misunderstanding that led to his leaving the party for a few years. However, he returned subsequently and aware of his immense potential, Rao made him the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.
Pranab played a major role in easing out Kesri and assisted Sonia to take over as the Congress president in March 1998. He was virtually indispensable and along with Arjun Singh and Fotedar, he formulated most party strategies. At the Shimla conclave in 2003 where Sonia Gandhi gave a call to opposition parties sharing certain common beliefs of the Congress, Pranab Da drafted the political resolution with inputs from others. In 2004 when the UPA came to power, he was sure that he may be chosen as the Prime Minister, but Sonia opted for Manmohan.
In 2006 CMs’ conclave in Nainital, it was virtually certain that Pranab would be designated as the deputy Prime Minister. But again, Sonia shot down the move. However, the dependency of the government on him was complete and he headed countless groups of ministers to address complex problems; at one time, he was head of 103 committees. In 2010, it became clear to him, that in the power game, within the party, Sonia appeared inclined towards P. Chidambaram, so his chances of being the PM were over.
From then onwards, he started planning to be the next President of the Republic and in 2012, when the opportune time arrived, he upstaged Sonia Gandhi, who wanted Hamid Ansari to be elected as the next head of State. She was compelled to accept him as the party nominee.
Pranab Da was a consensus builder and reached across to opponents in other parties to bring them on board. As the President, he received respect from Narendra Modi, who on several occasions, praised him publicly. His visit to the RSS Headquarterswas criticised by some Congressmen. But for Pranab Da, it was a mission, he took in pursuance of his inclusive style of politics. It was not surprising that the NDA government conferred the Bharat Ratna on him. He was indeed a rare type of politician.
Son of a school teacher, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, the district president of the Birbhum Congress, Pranab did his political apprenticeship under Sushil Dhara. His father was rated very highly by the legendary Bengal CM, Dr B.C. Roy. Mukherjee senior was close to Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee who headed the Bangla Congress led government in Bengal in the late sixties. The CM wanted senior Mukherjee to be sent to the lone Rajya Sabha seat in 1968-69, but the father recommended Pranab’s name. Once in Parliament, he made his mark and his father’s multiple friends such as Atulya Ghosh, etc, helped him in understanding the political craft at the highest level.
There is an interesting anecdote which Pranab Da narrated to some of his friends regarding a byelection in the late sixties in West Bengal. V.K. Krishna Menon, who was defeated from Bombay in 1967, was contesting as an Independent, backed by the Bangla Congress from Midnapore. Menon had the habit of making long speeches on international affairs, which made no sense to the rural citizens of the constituency. Pranab, who was appointed as an interpreter to Menon, comprehended the problem without losing any time. As soon as Menon would wax eloquent about some international subject, Pranab would, while translating, raise a local matter that had relevance to the people but nothing to do with Menon’s speech. Each time Pranab spoke, the audience would applaud which Menon would mistake to be appreciation for him since he did not understand the language. Thus, Pranab helped Menon to return to the Lok Sabha.
Pranab Mukherjee was a living encyclopedia who could recall even the minutest detail of meetings that had happened more than 50 years ago. He had a short temper, but would not take time in cooling down either. He brought both dignity and grace to the presidency. He was a Sstatesman, who shall be remembered for a long, long time.