Pranab Mukherjee(1935-2020): He was a copybook President who played with a straight bat

Last volume of his autobiography, Pranab Mukherjee had decreed, should be published only after his death, raising the possibility of a tell-all book covering the eventful period between 2004 and 2020


Zafar Agha

“Oh my friend, where have you been” he greeted me effusively when I called on him at his grand ministerial office in South Block. He had just taken over as Defence Minister in Dr Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. He seemed to be in good humour and was clearly having a good time and enjoying it. Pranab Mukherjee was positively glowing.

I had also met Pranab da, as he was endearingly called by one and all, soon after his homecoming to the Congress Party in 1989 after he had spent almost five years in political wilderness. He fell from Rajiv Gandhi’s grace in 1985 and he refused to induct him in his cabinet. The gossip mill maintained that after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, he had staked his claim to be the caretaker Prime Minister and it was not taken kindly by several Congress leaders.

Pranab Babu was the finance minister in 1982 and also the leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated. It was a snub he found hard to bear. He left the Congress and formed his own party which never quite took off. He returned to the Congress in 1989 and never looked back.

He was spotted by the then West Bengal chief minister Sidharth Shankar Ray in the early 1970s when Mukherjee was teaching Political Science in a Calcutta college. Ray sent him to Rajya Sabha. Once in the Rajya Sabha, Pranab da came close to Indira Gandhi, who in 1976 appointed him a junior minister.

He got along famously with Indira Gandhi when she returned to power in 1980. Indira Gandhi gave him the big assignment of handling the economy as her Finance Minister. It was the period when Pranab da learnt the art of managing power, developing contacts both in the world of business and commerce as well as in politics. Dhiru Bhai Ambani among many other big names in the Bombay industrial world befriended him and he soon began to be seen as their man in Delhi. They were just a phone call away.

Pranab da was known as a trouble shooter within the Congress Party, a job he began to do for Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s when Rao felt threatened from his colleagues Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar.

After aspiring to be the Prime Minister and having burnt his fingers in the process earlier, he was content to be number two in the power hierarchy. It was a job he did with such finesse that every Congress Prime Minister loved to keep him as his number two. When Manmohan Singh took office as Prime Minister in 2004, he leaned heavily on Mukherjee who served him as his master trouble shooter all through a decade between 2004-12. Even Congress President Sonia Gandhi took his counsel in party matters.

Mischievous newsmen would try to provoke him by telling him that he deserved to be the Prime Minister since Dr Manmohan Singh was the RBI Governor when he was the Finance Minister. But Mukherjee would deftly fend off the bouncers by declaring that since he did not speak Hind well, he could never be the PM. One could never be sure if he really meant it.

All those who came in close contact with Pranab da understood that he wished to be the Prime Minister of the country when Manmohan Singh pipped him to the post. I once bluntly asked him: “Dada, I expected you to be the Prime Minister in 2004; what went wrong.” He looked at me, smiled, shrugged off his shoulders and just uttered a word: “Destiny”.

But destiny did compensate him with the highest job in the country as President of India in 2012. Pranab da served this post with dignity and poise that is required of a president. Imagine, the man who served the Congress Party for almost five decades was conferred Bharat Ratna by the NDA government headed by Narendra Modi in 2019.

Prime Minister Modi claimed to be charmed by Pranab da and acknowledged that he had benefitted from Mukherjee’s advice. Like most deft politicians, Dada was a charmer indeed. Modi publicly praised Pranab Mukherjee, who raised eyebrows by visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur after relinquishing office of the President. He also addressed RSS volunteers. It shocked many Congressmen and his liberal admirers outside.

Pranab da served India well for almost five decades in almost every key position in the government, as minister and finally as India’s President. As President he played an active role in the affairs of central universities. He was fond of interacting with Vice Chancellors and often invited them to the Rashtrapati Bhavan for long workshops. He also tried to spruce up a museum in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and threw the President’s House open to visitors. While he tried to be a copybook President, he either did not or could not restrain the Modi Government from taking controversial decisions including the cancellation of the Rafale deal. Could he have played a more constructive and restraining role, especially since he and Prime Minister Modi seemed to get on like a house on fire?

The answer is possibly tucked into the last volume of his autobiography that he had decreed would be published after his death. This volume is likely to deal with the UPA years and his stint in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Earlier volumes have been staid and politically correct. It remains to be seen if the last volume turns out to be the tell-all memoir that he was hinting at.

Rest in Peace, Pranab da. India will miss you.

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Published: 31 Aug 2020, 6:23 PM