Former President Pranab Mukherjee Photograph:( WION )
Loved and feared in equal measure, he was notably the only Congressman, whom the BJP of Modi-Shah respected. Mukherjee was a socialist at heart; a pragmatic capitalist in action; a loyal partyman though seen with suspicion; and a shrewd administrator who delivered some of the most controversial policies that never became scams.
Pranab Mukherjee was certainly the only politician in India who survived, succeeded and reached new political heights without a mass base. He mastered the art of being indispensable in Indian politics. A prolific reader, writer and thinker, he earned the reputation of a political intellectual, but at heart was an astute politician.
Loved and feared in equal measure, he was notably the only Congressman, whom the BJP of Modi-Shah respected. Mukherjee was a socialist at heart; a pragmatic capitalist in action; a loyal partyman though seen with suspicion; and a shrewd administrator who delivered some of the most controversial policies that never became scams. With his brilliance of mind, he controlled his party and Opposition.
He is the only President of independent India to run for the office of the President and win it. No other President compelled his party to declare him as a candidate – a distinction that only Pranab Mukherjee has had and will have in India’s Parliamentary democracy.
Mukherjee started his career with Bangla Congress and entered the Rajya Sabha in 1969. His deep political understanding of history, politics and economics made him an outstanding Parliamentarian. While delivering a speech in the Parliament, he was noticed by Indira Gandhi.
Since 1971, except the Rajiv Gandhi years of 1984-89, he was part of every Government till 2012. Barring the home portfolio, he managed, almost all important ministries; was leader of the house in Lok Sabha; the longest serving CWC member; and a fierce Parliamentarian.
His first peak in career came with his appointment as Finance Minister in the Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. He was the first finance minister who started meeting and hearing corporates individually and ended the corporate delegation system in socialist India. He gave industry and industrialist-interactions the much-needed credibility. He managed to not be identified with one or the other corporate group. The diversification of the Industry beyond the Marwari and Bombay club started in his tenure as Finance Minister.
So powerful was his presence in Indira’s Cabinet that he made many enemies within the Congress who envied his access to the leader and influence over the government. His fall and political 'Vanwaas' came with the death of Indira Gandhi.
By convention, as the senior most cabinet member, he should have been sworn in as the interim PM. But he was not. Those who plotted against Mukherjee were later seen abandoning Rajiv Gandhi in the midst of the Bofors scandal. At the end of his tenure, Rajiv Gandhi understood the importance and need of Pranab Mukherjee to a party and government that was in deep crisis. By the time Pranab Mukherjee’s full rehabilitation in the Party could happen, Rajiv Gandhi died.
The Narsimha Rao era was a comeback for Pranab Mukherjee. As a man of all seasons, he worked with Rao as Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission and subsequently as External Affairs Minister in Rao’s Cabinet. In the turbulent years, of Rao versus Gandhis in the Congress, he stayed away from either side, demonstrating utility to both the party and the government.
The 1996 defeat of the Congress birthed the coalition era where the Congress was the kingmaker and not the King. Mukherjee stayed the course, eventually working towards facilitating the entry of Sonia Gandhi as Congress President.
In the Sonia years, while Congress split, Mukherjee did not go with Sharad Pawar, staying firmly with the mother Party and the Gandhi family.
One of his trusted aides once recounted, "On occasions, the Vajpayee PMO would bring files to him while he was the Chairperson of the Congress Media Cell to seek his aid and advice on important administrative matters.” It should be noted that Mukherjee never misused the information that he had about the Government for petty political gains.
In 2004, when the Congress came back to power, Mukherjee contributed a lion’s share in giving shape to the coalition, and the term - United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – was coined by him. He saw Manmohan Singh becoming the Prime Minister – a man Mukherjee himself, as Finance Minister, appointed the Governor of RBI.
During the UPA-1 years, he worked tirelessly in implementing the government’s agenda and has the rare distinction of heading over 85 Empowered Group of Ministers or EGoMs that delivered critical political and administrative decisions that facilitated the massive growth, infrastructure overhaul and progressive legislative agenda.
On reelection of the UPA, Manmohan Singh was reappointed as Prime Minister, which put an end to Mukherjee’s entry into 7 Race Course Road forever. His critics may examine his UPA-2 years with suspicion. Many feel that he felt under-rewarded for his years in service.
He had lost his charm as a troubleshooter for the government and had very little impact in controversies like the Anna Hazare agitation and the Baba Ramdev negotiations. Further, as Finance Minister he introduced the retrospective tax, which was the nail in the coffin for an already gloomy economic environment.
Rumours of his communication with Party leadership breaking down were in the air and he found his office to be bugged, a perturbing situation about which he complained to the Prime Minister, seeking a secret probe. In the mid of 2012, Mukherjee sensed that the Congress Party may not consider him for the Presidential race.
For a few weeks before the elections, he signaled through the media of his interest, to run for the Office of the President. In an interview to a business daily, he declared his interest to be the 13th President of India. He got the support of non-Congress, non-BJP parties, including parties like the Shiv Sena and Jagan Reddy, which came as a setback to the NDA.
India finally got a President who had deep understanding of the Constitution and political administration. As President, he restored the glory of the office, which was lost due to the controversies surrounding his predecessor. He administered the oath of office to Narendra Modi in his tenure.
The one and only former Congressman that Narendra Modi truly respects, and timely visited, was Pranab Mukherjee. He often reached out to “Pranab da” as he fondly calls him even after retirement. So sincere is Modi’s admiration for Pranab da that the only former Congressman who received a Bharat Ratna in the Narendra Modi years – was Mukherjee.
Pranab Mukherjee died on 31 August 2020. A Congressman at heart, he was loved and respected, but perhaps not trusted. He earned remarkable political capital with his administrative and political skills but could never become the Prime Minister.
Throughout his political life, there was no evidence of him engineering coups or discussion with other parties for power or position. On the day he received the Bharat Ratna from a Government so bitterly opposed to the same cloth from which Mukherjee’s politics was cut, not a single member of the Gandhi family was present.
Thus ends the journey of the only Congressman whose feet Narendra Modi touched and who appointed Manmohan Singh as the RBI governor. Even Mukherjee’s adversaries admired him for his capacity to administer. India’s classic 24X7 politician and most experienced of all. A man of all seasons, by his death a bridge across the ideological divide has fallen. He leaves behind two children of his own and two more he adopted and loved as his own. The last Congressman who received a Bharat Ratna and deserved it - is no more.
(Daniel Francis is a Political Analyst and Communication Expert)