In Pranab Mukherjee’s passing away, India has lost a great statesman. The former President’s eventful public life, lasting more than half century, saw him serve as minister under Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh and, for a brief period, under Rajiv Gandhi.
Mukherjee was initiated into politics through the breakaway ‘Bangla Congress’, under the tutelage of Ajoy Mukherjee, and the party nominated a young Pranab to the Rajya Sabha in 1969 as a ‘United Front’ candidate. After the United Front experiment collapsed in West Bengal, Indira Gandhi recruited Mukherjee to the Indian National Congress in 1972 and, the next decade would see his meteoric rise in the party, ultimately placing him as the ‘Number 2’ behind Gandhi.
Starting out as a Deputy Minister in 1973, Mukherjee was Minister of State for Finance under C Subramaniam within a year, and held independent charge of the Revenue and Banking portfolios from 1975-77, during the Emergency years. When Indira Gandhi split the Congress in early 1978, Mukherjee was among the few senior leaders who stood with her.
From this point there was no stopping Mukherjee as he became part of the crucial Congress Parliamentary Board, apart from briefly taking charge of the party’s finances as treasurer in 1978. Despite the strictures passed by the Shah Commission against him for his role in the Emergency and a defeat in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, Mukherjee made it to Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet as Union Commerce Minister.
After Zail Singh and R Venkataraman got elevated as President and Vice-President respectively, Mukherjee became the unofficial ‘Number 2’ in the Indira Cabinet, also taking over as the Finance Minister from Venkataraman in 1982. He also remained one of the only two Cabinet ministers in the eight-member Congress Parliamentary Board, the other being the late PV Narasimha Rao.
In spite of being the ultimate Congress loyalist, how did the top executive position of Prime Minister evade him on at least three occasions?
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in late 1984, Mukherjee was on a tour of North Bengal with Rajiv Gandhi. After getting confirmation of the Prime Minister’s death on the BBC while on an emergency flight back to Delhi, Mukherjee writes in the second part of his memoirs ‘The Turbulent Years’ what transpired on the aircraft.
The likes of ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, Balram Jakhar, Uma Shankar Dikshit and his daughter-in-law Sheila Dixit began discussing among them the future course of action and concluded that Rajiv Gandhi be immediately announced as Prime Minister, junking the precedent set by President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan of swearing in interim Prime Ministers following the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Mukherjee also joined in, reminding others of the precedent (which would have elevated him as interim Prime Minister) but soon fell in line and communicated to Rajiv Gandhi that he should take over.
A mere mention of such a precedent was apparently enough for many within Congress to spin yarns about Mukherjee’s ambitions to supersede the Gandhi scion, and these stories would see him fall out of favour with Rajiv Gandhi.
After coming back to power with a thumping margin within a couple of months in December 1984, Rajiv Gandhi dumped Mukherjee from his Cabinet, replacing him with VP Singh.
Mukherjee subsequently quit the Congress and floated the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress in 1986, but his fledgling party performed disastrously in the 1987 West Bengal assembly elections. By 1989, Rajiv Gandhi got Mukherjee to come back to the Congress after clearing his misconceptions, but the latter had to start all over again, initially as a ‘spokesperson’. Falling behind in the pecking order spectacularly, Mukherjee was nowhere in contention for the top job when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 and a ‘non-Gandhi’ had to take over as Prime Minister.
Mukherjee was never a mass leader and derived his clout within the Congress from his proximity with Indira Gandhi and his phase in the wilderness coincided with Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, but he was soon back as Narasimha Rao began calling the shots as Prime Minister. Rao first appointed Mukherjee as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and in 1993, he was back in the Cabinet as Commerce Minister and later, External Affairs Minister in 1995.
While the Congress was out of power (1996-2004), Mukherjee was active in counselling Sonia Gandhi in her initial days as Congress President. Yet, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government won the 2004 election, Gandhi nominated Manmohan Singh instead of Mukherjee as the Prime Minister, thus depriving him of the top job a third time.
Mukherjee nevertheless played a vital behind-the-scenes role co-ordinating the affairs of the government and the party, and was heading more than 50 GoMs (Group of Ministers) at one point. Despite his less-than-impressive turn as finance minister from 2008-2012, Mukherjee was the chief trouble-shooter and vital to the functioning of the UPA-II government as its unravelling post-2012 would indicate.
Thus, it was only fitting that Pranab Mukherjee was nominated as President of India, capping a political career that began in the late sixties. A textbook President, Pranab Mukherjee will always be remembered as a statesman and his legacy will live on.Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.