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Pranabda rose to be Indian President but the Premiership he yearned for, eluded him

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Former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee died on Monday in a Delhi hospital, where he had undergone brain surgery. He was 84. With the death of “Pranabda”, the last of the powerful leaders of the Indira Gandhi-era has gone. He went at a time when his party is looking for someone who can put all the factions together and put fire in its belly. 

Born in Mirati village of Birbhum district in West Bengal on December 11, 1935, Pranabda will be remembered for engineering many changes in Indian politics and governance. He was responsible for many landmark decisions. But what would keep coming back to one’s mind is how close he got to the post of Prime Minister and how he missed it every time. 

Pranab’s father, Kamada Kinkar, was a “staunch nationalist” – in Mukherjee’s words – who had brought up his children in an environment of discipline and patriotism in pre-Independence India. 

“When the Congress pledged to observe 26 January as Independence Day, we would raise the flag at home every year…” noted Mukherjee in the first part of his autobiography, The Dramatic Decade.

Interestingly, for a man who was brought up in an environment steeped in Congress nationalism, Mukherjee started his political career in the mid-1960s in the Bangla Congress, a breakaway faction of the Congress led by Ajoy Mukherjee. He went to India’s Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha in 1969, backed by the Communists. In fact, West Bengal’s longest serving Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was instrumental in sending him to the Rajya Sabha. That had a reason.

Mukherjee suggested to Ajoy Mukherjee that Bangla Congress should unite with the Left parties, mainly the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), in order to defeat the Congress. Mukherjee wrote: “I first mooted the idea…if we fight the elections (in West Bengal) on a common ground, we could defeat the Congress.” 

Indira Gandhi took a liking to him, mainly for his speeches in Parliament. Eventually, he joined the Congress as the Bangla Congress merged with the Congress in 1973. Whereupon he became a Deputy Minister.

“There is no one in Delhi to back you on your caste lines as usually, people do when you get elected from Uttar Pradesh or other Hindi-heartland states. But Pranabda soon became close to Indira Gandhi, largely because of his sharpness…his mind,” Deba Prasad Roy, a Rajya Sabha member said. Roy added that Mukherjee's memory and ability to understand a political situation was “outstanding”. 

However, his closeness to Indira, became his nemesis after she was assassinated in 1984. Following the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi was flying from Bengal to Delhi with Mukherjee and few of top Congress leaders on board. Apparently in a conversation, Mukherjee indicated that the “Number 2” in the cabinet usually takes over as the Prime Minister, according to precedence in Indian political history. Rajiv apparently took objection to this. Mukherjee’s fall from grace followed. 

Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, presently a Trinamool Congress MP, said that “a gang of four” at the Centre in Delhi and Kolkata colluded to drive a wedge between Rajiv Gandhi and Pranab da. “The two Aruns – Arun Nehru and Arun Singh – Balram Jakhar and Makhan Lal Fotedar ganged up against Mukherjee in Delhi, while another gang of four was active in West Bengal. It was out of huge jealousy as Pranabda was extremely close to Mrs Indira Gandhi and on every issue he was the Prime Minister’s go-to man,” Roy explained. 

In 1982, Mukherjee became Finance Minister. But that was a dark chapter in his fifty-year political career. He was accused by the press and the opposition of extending undue favors to a rising Gujarati businessman, Dhirubhai Ambani. The Kolkata daily The Telegraph, known for exciting headlines, even ran a hugely circulated story asking if Mukherjee was a “Finance Minister or Reliance Minister.”

The Dark days

Mukherjee was expelled from Congress in 1986. Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, who was with Mukherjee, said: “It was a bad time. Pranab da formed the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress and contested in 200 seats in the 1987 West Bengal elections. But the deposit was forfeited in all seats barring three. Dada was depressed.” 

Sangeeta Ghosh, a biographer of Mukherjee’s wife Suvra, who passed away in August 2019, described those days thus: “We were in Durgapur and Mukherjee, a friend of my father’s, visited us. Usually, he used to be jovial. But that was a different time. There was no one with him and he was lonely and depressed. He was missing his association with politics and party.”

Mukherjee returned to the Congress in 1988. But he was unexpectedly dropped by his long term friend P V Narasimha Rao when the latter became Prime Minister in 1991. “Pranabda was very upset. He was asked to join as the Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission. He took over albeit reluctantly. But he got back into the Cabinet in 1995 as External Affairs Minister.

Association with Bangladesh

Pranab Mukherjee and Bangladesh were inseparable. A product of the politics of undivided India, Mukherjee was an avid follower of the politics of South Asia. This interest pushed him to associate himself with Bangladesh closely.

“Bangladesh is not about diplomacy or politics to me. I am fond of the place,” Mukherjee told this correspondent in an interview about 15 years ago. Perhaps this is the reason why the first chapter of his autobiography is on Bangladesh: “Muktijuddho: The Making of Bangladesh.”

Mukherjee wrote: “On 15 June (1971), during the Budget session, I initiated a discussion on the floor of the Rajya Sabha, suggesting that India should accord diplomatic recognition to the Government of Bangladesh in exile in Mujibnagar. When a member sought my suggestion on how to tackle the problem, I responded by saying: I am talking of a political solution which means categorically recognizing the sovereign democratic government of Bangladesh.”

After Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, Indira Gandhi requested the family of Sheikh Hasina to fly to India and Mukherjee and his wife Suvra were their hosts and guardians for five years. This association remained and helped both countries, and also the Congress and Awami League, in later years. 

Former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Touhid Hossain, said: “Mukherjee had sophistication, maturity. In diplomacy substantive progress is not always expected but the important thing is to be careful about the choice of words. Mr. Mukherjee was polite unlike what we witness these days from the Indian side.”

Interestingly, many in Bangladesh often remember Mukherjee with fondness now when the relationship between the two countries has sunk to a new low.

Gautam Lahiri, a journalist who closely followed Mukherjee for many decades and penned a biography, said that Mukherjee played “a crucial and critical role” neutralizing the Bangladesh army. He explained to the Nobel laureate Md Yunus why he should withdraw from politics to let a fair election take place in Bangladesh in 1988. “He did not respond to the American request to back Yunus,” Lahiri said.  

UPA Days

Pranab da could have become the Indian Prime Minister at least on four occasions. In 1984, he should have been Prime Minister based on precedence. In 2004 when United Progressive Alliance (UPA) I and later when UPA II was in power, he missed. The Gandhis were not in favor of him (though Sonia Gandhi did back Mukherjee once for the top job of President, a few months before the 2012 Presidential election). 

“Sonia was sincere,” Sukhendu Sekhar Roy said. “The Congress was under huge pressure owing to several scams and a section of the Congress opined that Pranabda should be made the Prime Minister as he is totally clean and that would minimize the anti-incumbency factor, while Manmohan Singh could be pushed for the post of President. But why this plan did not fructify, I do not know as I joined the Trinamool Congress in 2011,” Roy said. 

Why Mukherjee missed becoming PM remains a mystery. One of the speculations was that if Singh was pushed for the post of President he might not get the requisite number of votes while Mukherjee would get support from all quarters, both allies and the opposition, which he did. If Congress had lost the Presidential election it would have been a huge loss of face, making it impossible for the already tired party to stay in power.               

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Former president Pranab Mukherjee with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat at the closing ceremony of ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’, June 2018. (PTI Photo)

Towards the end of life, Mukherjee visited Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Nagpur headquarters annoying the Congress. His party virtually cut off all links with him, isolating him once again. He got Bharat Ratna from the BJP government, perhaps as a reward of visiting the RSS headquarters. His relationship with RSS’ top brass and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was close. 

Thus, Mukherjee started and ended his career with the indirect or direct support of parties averse to the Congress. But once in the Congress, he was loyal to it. 

On his death, many old Congress supporters and leaders felt that if he had been with the Congress for another five years, following his Presidential stint, he could have revived the ailing party.