Pranab Mukherjee

Pranab Mukherjee: A man for all seasons

Print edition : September 25, 2020

At the opening of the annual ‘Udyanotsav’ of the Mughal Gardens of Rashtrapati Bhavan, February 15, 2013. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Receiving the Bharat Ratna from President Ram Nath Kovind on August 8, 2019. Photo: PTI

With former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, a file picture. His political career revived during Rao’s tenure. Photo: The Hindu Archives

February 27, 1982: Perusing the Budget papers prior to presentation in Parliament. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Former President Pranab Mukherjee (1935-2020), one of the most influential politicians of the last 40 years, retained his relevance and grew in stature amid changing times, held several key posts and was popular across political and ideological lines.

Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s death on August 31 marked the end of not just an era in Congress history but also in Indian politics. The 13th President of India, he was also widely regarded in political circles as the man who could also have been the Prime Minister of the country. Yet, for all his achievements in a career spanning five decades, culminating in his presidentship (2012) and being conferred the Bharat Ratna (2019), he had to remain content with the legacy of being, in the words of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “one of the greatest living Congressmen, whom the Congress turned to whenever there was a crisis, or a ticklish matter to be resolved”.

Manmohan Singh himself once said, while speaking about being chosen as Prime Minister over Pranab Mukherjee in 2004: “He had every reason to feel a grievance that he was better qualified than I was to be the Prime Minister. But he also knew that I had no choice in the matter…. We ran the government as a cohesive team of which Pranab Mukherjee was the most important member.”

On August 9, Pranab Mukherjee suffered a fall at his residence and required surgery to remove a clot in his brain. Prior to the surgery, he tested positive for COVID-19. After the operation, he went into a deep coma and breathed his last on August 31. He was 84 and is survived by his daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Congress leader, and son Abhijit Mukherjee, a former Lok Sabha MP.

This diminutive, unflappable, quintessential Congressman was one of the most influential politicians of the country for the last 40 years, someone who not only retained his relevance in the changing times but also grew in importance and stature with every passing period.

Starting as a Deputy Minister and a Minister of State in the 1970s, Pranab Mukherjee soon rose to become a Cabinet Minister from 1980 onward. He was Minister of Commerce and Steel and Mines (1980-1982), Finance Minister (1982-1984), Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (1991-1996), Minister of Commerce (1993-1995), Minister of External Affairs (1995-1996), Defence Minister (2004-2006), Minister of External Affairs (2006-2009), and Finance Minister again from January 2009 to June 2012. Above all, he was the most reliable and effective troubleshooter and a guiding light for the Congress.

In his tribute on Twitter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “India grieves the passing away of Bharat Ratna Shri Pranab Mukherjee. He has left an indelible mark on the development trajectory of our nation. A scholar par excellence, a towering statesman, he was admired across the political spectrum and by all sections of society…”

Modi said that Pranab Mukherjee made Rashtrapati Bhavan “a centre of learning, innovation, culture, science and literature”. Praising his statesmanship and wisdom, he said: “I was new to Delhi in 2014. From Day 1, I was blessed to have the guidance, support and blessings of Shri Pranab Mukherjee.”

President Ram Nath Kovind described him as “a colossus in public life” who served “Mother India with the spirit of a sage. The nation mourns losing one of its worthiest sons.”

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee remembered her former Congress colleague as a “father figure”. She said on social media: “So many memories. A visit to Delhi without Pranabda is unimaginable. He is a legend in all subjects from politics to economics. Will be forever grateful. Shall miss him immensely.”

His old political foe, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), expressed “profound grief” at his demise and described him as “one of India’s leading political figures”. “He maintained cordial relations with political parties across the board and often played the role of the main interlocuter for the governments he represented,” the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) stated in a release.

Interestingly, it was with the help of the CPI(M) that Pranab Mukherjee made his debut in parliamentary politics. In 1969, when he was still teaching at a college in Birbhum in West Bengal, Sukumar Roy of the Bangla Congress took him to the headquarters of the CPI(M) on Alimuddin Street. The Bangla Congress and the CPI(M) were alliance partners in the United Front government in the State. A Rajya Sabha seat had fallen vacant and the Bangla Congress wanted Pranab Mukherjee in it. Although under an earlier agreement it was the CPI(M)’s candidate who was supposed to get the Rajya Sabha berth, the party nevertheless agreed to its ally’s wish, and that marked the launch of Pranab Mukherjee’s political career.

Relations with the Left

However, his political relations with the Left quickly began to deteriorate with his rise in the Congress. According to veteran CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb, Pranab Mukherjee’s relations with the Left were particularly sour in the 1970s.

“Our political relations improved during the first UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government in 2004 [which the Left supported from outside]. From 1972 onward, and during the Emergency period, our relations were very bad. But after the defeat of the Congress in 1977, Pranab began to gradually mend ties with the Left,” Rabin Deb told Frontline.

He added that when the time came for Pranab Mukherjee to be elected President of India, the CPI(M) did extend its support, even though some of the Left Front allies, particularly the Forward Bloc, expressed strong reservations.

According to former Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra, who is now with the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Pranab Mukherjee was always keen on strategies that could defeat the CPI(M)-led Left Front in Bengal. “He was always enthused about working with the Trinamool Congress, as was evident in the 2009 and 2011 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections respectively,” he told Frontline.

Yet, on a personal level, Pranab Mukherjee was on very good terms with Left leaders, who, for all their differences, respected him for his political acumen and hard work. “It is no mean achievement for someone from an ordinary background from Birbhum district to rise to such positions of power,” said Rabin Deb.

A unique aspect of Pranab Mukherjee’s character was that he managed to maintain excellent relations with all political parties, friends and foes alike. Regardless of how much they differed politically and ideologically, on a personal level Pranab Mukherjee was friendly with everyone. This, no doubt, served well in his function as a consensus builder for the Congress in Parliament.

In the 1980s he would fight the BJP tooth and nail, but would not miss his regular early morning walks with former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, his neighbour. Knowing that Vajpayee was fond of good food, Pranab Mukherjee would, from time to time, send across food cooked by his wife Suvra. (Suvra passed away in 2015.)

In 2018, Pranab Mukherjee created a stir in the political world when he accepted an invitation from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to address its members. Several parties expressed reservations but Pranab Mukherjee went ahead and delivered his speech, in which he said, “The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. This plurality of our society has come through assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation.”

Early days

Pranab Mukherjee was born on December 11, 1935, in Mirati, a village in Birbhum, to freedom fighters Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee and Rajlakshmi. After graduating from Suri Vidyasagar College, he acquired a Master’s degree in political science and history from the University of Calcutta and also got a law degree from the university. In the 1960s he worked as an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vidyanagar College in South 24 Parganas district and at the same time as a journalist for a local Bengali paper called Desher Dak.

After becoming a Rajya Sabha MP in 1969, Pranab Mukherjee swiftly rose up the ranks in politics. With the decline of the Bangla Congress, he joined the Congress and was spotted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi almost immediately.

Widely read and knowledgeable in a large number of fields, Pranab Mukherjee was also an excellent speaker and an asset to his party. Facts, figures, data and statistics were at his fingertips, as was his deep awareness of socio-political developments across the country. His knowledge of the history of Parliament was encyclopaedic and his ability to recall the relevant fact at the right moment was legendary.

Om Prakash Mishra remembers a game Pranab Mukherjee liked to play with his companions while travelling by car. “He was not very fond of people talking inside the car. So he devised a game of naming all the districts in every State in the country. This is a habit I picked up from him,” said Mishra.

Pranab Mukherjee was the go-to man for the Congress in times of crisis to plan, negotiate and deliver. It is believed that Indira Gandhi used to say that no confidential information came out of him. “What comes out is only smoke from his pipe.”

Political wilderness

After Indira Gandhi’s death, Pranab Mukherjee’s political fortunes slumped for a while. Left out of Rajiv Gandhi’s Cabinet, he left the Congress in 1986 and formed the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress.

It is believed that he considered himself to be the rightful choice to be interim Prime Minister following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, given that he was the second most powerful figure in the Congress after her.

A party old-timer said: “It was presumed he would be the immediate caretaker Prime Minister since he often presided over the Cabinet during Indira Gandhi’s absence; but that was not to be. Rajiv Gandhi had his own reasons for not including Pranabda in the new Cabinet. This was obviously humiliating for him.”

However, Pranab Mukherjee denied ever harbouring any ambitions for the Prime Minister’s post. In his autobiography, The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996, published in 2016, he wrote: “Finally, many stories have been circulated that I aspired to be the interim Prime Minister, that I had staked claim and had to be persuaded otherwise. And that this created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind. These stories are completely false and spiteful.”

However, he admitted that when he learnt that he was dropped from Rajiv Gandhi’s Cabinet following the elections which the Congress swept, he was “shell-shocked and flabbergasted”.

For the first time he found himself in the political wilderness. Few of his old colleagues joined him when he left the Congress in 1986 to form his own party, and the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress could not make any headway in national politics either.

Alone and suddenly friendless, those days were among the darkest periods of his life, according to those close to him.

In 1989, he made peace with Rajiv Gandhi and merged his party with the Congress. Years later, writing about his relationship with Rajiv Gandhi and his departure from the Congress, he said, “…all I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.”

Pranab Mukherjee’s political career began to revive when P.V. Narasimha Rao took over the reins of the Congress and became the Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. In June that year, he was made Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission; in 1993 he was given charge of the Ministry of Commerce, and in 1995 he became the External Affairs Minister.

For all his abilities and power, Pranab Mukherjee, according to some Congress veterans, was acutely aware of the fact that he was not a mass leader and had never won a general election.

It was only in 2004, after five stints in the Rajya Sabha (1969, 1975, 1981, 1993, and 1999) that he won his first Lok Sabha seat when he contested from the Jangipur constituency in Murshidabad in West Bengal. He acknowledged the occasion to be a milestone in his political career. “I have no words to express my gratitude to the people of Jangipur,” he had said. He went on to win the seat again in 2009 but resigned in 2012 to become the President of India.

Pranab Mukherjee was almost 70 years old when the Congress-led UPA came to power at the Centre in 2004. He once again proved that he had lost none of his skills and abilities.

Although disappointed at being passed over for the Prime Minister’s chair yet again when Manmohan Singh was given the top post, Pranab Mukherjee still remained, in Manmohan Singh’s own words, “the most important member” of the team that ran the government. His popularity cutting across political and ideological lines and his calm, pragmatic approach in handling delicate situations made him indispensable during a time of coalition politics.

Diplomatic career

Pranab Mukherjee also had a glittering diplomatic career, in which he served on the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank.

He led Indian delegations to the Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ conferences in 1982, 1983 and 1984; the United Nations General Assembly in 1994, 1995, 2005 and 2006; the Conference of Commonwealth Heads of Government at Auckland in 1995; the Non-Aligned Foreign Minister’s Conference at Cartagena in 1995 and the Conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in 1995.

According to a survey conducted by the Euro Money journal in 1984, he was rated among the five best Finance Ministers in the world. In 2010 he was declared ‘Finance Minister of the Year for Asia’ by the Emerging Markets journal.

From 2012 to 2017 Pranab Mukherjee served as President of India, and in 2019 he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour in the country. If being ignored for the Prime Minister’s post ever rankled, he never showed it; he went about his work with his usual stodgy reliability and political foresight.

Speaking about being passed over, Pranab Mukherjee said in 2017: “Dr Manmohan Singh was the right person to be chosen to lead the country at that point of time, and serving under him for eight years… I can say with confidence that he provided the right leadership to the nation as Prime Minister. So far as I am concerned… I have received much more from the people of this country than I have given to them. So, I am content with what I have received.”

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