With the passing of Pranab Mukherjee, a long and illustrious career, marked by many a political successes and failures, also came to an end.
When the former President of India informed, via a tweet, that he had tested positive for COVID-19, messages wishing him speedy recovery poured in across party lines. From West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and DMK chief MK Stalin to Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Union minister Piyush Goyal, leaders of every hue and ideological inclination prayed for his health.
That, in one sense, was a testament to Mukherjee's influence within the Indian political establishment. Although he remained a staunch Congressman for most of his political career, and stood steadfastly behind former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during times of trouble, like the Emergency of 1975, Mukherjee, like any veteran politician, cultivated friendships across party lines.
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Born in 1935 in a village called Mirati in West Bengal, Mukherjee's family supported Congress, and he wrote, in his book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years about how it would hoist the Congress flag every January 26. His father, Mukherjee wrote, travelled “from village to village, sharing meals with the locals and preaching the Congress ideology”.
In the same volume, Mukherjee writes that he was a “restless child... and with a penchant for avoiding studies as much as I could.” By that logic the little that the future President of India must have studied would have been enough for him to chart his journey as a lecturer of political science and then as a journalist.
Mukherjee's political career began in 1969, when Indira Gandhi made him a member of the Congress party.
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Soon after that, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket and rose up the political ladder, becoming a union minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet for the first time in 1973 and then helming, among others, various important portfolios such as the External Affairs Ministry, the defense ministry, the ministry of commerce and the ministry of finance.
Mukherjee was sent to Rajya Sabha by Congress in 1975, 1981, 1993 and 1999.
Known to be close to Gandhi, Mukherjee had a fallout with the party after her assassination in 1984. He had floated his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC) in 1986, claiming, according to reports published at that time, that while Indira was approachable, Rajiv isn't and Congressmen are dismayed.
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Stating that these fence-sitters would develop doubts about their leader on the eve of the next election and try to find an alternative, Mukherjee had reasoned that they would join RSC.
“Where else will they go? Congressmen have always looked for alternatives within the Congress framework,” an India Today report quoted him as saying.
But that was not to be, and three years after its formation, RSC had to be merged with Congress. While Mukherjee continued to be the troubleshooter for the Grand Old Party while serving as a minister during the 90's, the post of Prime Ministership continued to evade him— first, after Indira Gandhi's assassination,and then nearly 20 years later, in 2004, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power. While there was anticipation that Mukherjee could be the PM, the post eventually went to Manmohan Singh.
"The prevelant expectation was that I would be the next choice for prime minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. This expectation was possibly based on the fact that I had extensive experience in government, while Singh's vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist finance minister," Mukherjee wrote in The Coalition Years, the final volume of his three-part autobiography.
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In 2012, Mukherjee was elected the 13th President of India, a compensation, observers had then said, for missing out on the post of the prime minister.
Many would say that it isn't just his service as the president, politician and a minister that defines Mukherjee, however, and they would be right. Mukherjee was also a man of culture and a voracious reader, reading, according to reports, three books at a time.
Mukherjee also had a seat at the table of various international organisations, with memberships in the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He also presided over the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation on various occasions.
A recipient of several awards, including the Padma Vibhushan, Mukherjee was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, in 2019.