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How Pranab Da, Perpetual No.2 in Many Congress Govts, Finally Stepped Ahead of PM in Protocol

Former President Pranab Mukherjee, 84, passed away in Delhi on Monday.

Former President Pranab Mukherjee, 84, passed away in Delhi on Monday.

Inadvertently or otherwise, Mamata Banerjee’s pronouncements forced Congress’ hands in endorsing Pranab Mukherjee for the top constitutional post.

Sumit Pande

The summers of 2012 in Delhi was unusually hot and humid. The monsoons had hit the Western Ghats. It was a while before the national capital would get its first pre-monsoon showers when a political storm hit the Lutyens zone out of nowhere.

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had been in discussions with like-minded parties to finalise Presidential candidate to replace Pratibha Patil in Rashtrapati Bhawan. Deliberations, in true Congress style, dragged for weeks.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee met Sonia Gandhi at 10, Janpath, in the second week of June. She walked out to a posse of cameras waiting outside to announce that she has been informed by the Congress that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is party’s first choice for the President’s post, followed by Vice President Hamid Ansari.

Later in the evening, Banerjee drove down to SP President Mulayam Singh Yadav’s residence on Krishna Menon Marg to hold a joint presser.

The two announced support for former President APJ Abdul Kalam, PM Manmohan Singh or former LS speaker Somnath Chatterjee. Both SP and TMC were in power in their respective states and seemed to be weighing in their combined strength in the presidential collegium.

It remains a mystery till date as to why the Trinamool Leader made public her priviledged conversations with Congress president Sonia Gandhi that afternoon. Inadvertently or otherwise, her pronouncements however forced Congress’ hands in endorsing Mukherjee for the top constitutional post.

Within hours of the dramatic press conference where alternative panel of three was suggested, Mulayam Singh was in touch with Congress leaders.

The next meeting between the SP chief and Mamata Banerjee never materialised. And Mukherjee was unanimously announced as UPA’s nominee after SP chief endorsed Congress’ candidate then next day.

We will also probably never know whether Mukherjee and Ansari were Congress’ pick in that order or not.

But Mukherjee looked a relieved man once his name was endorsed by the ruling alliance. In his interactions with journalists thereafter, he would fondly recall his struggle to reach school when the river was in spare. As a child he would plant a coin hoping to reap a rich harvest some day in the future. And how his mother impressed upon him to seek success through education and not by planting coins.

He would share a few trade secrets as well. Especially the mental exercises which helped him develop the fabled elephantine memory. Try to recall what you did yesterday; he would tell those in audience. And then go back by another day; and then another. The longer one can go back in time, sharper your memory becomes, he would say, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief.

Slowly yet steadily Mukherjee built his campaign for the presidential polls. The Left parties had no objection in supporting him. The Bengal CM finally had to endorse the son of the soil. Sharad Pawar was Pranab Mukherjee’s campaign manager. Former LS speaker PA Sangma was roped in by the NDA to challenge Mukherjee as the joint candidate for the opposition.

Many in the NDA crossed over to support Pranab Mukherjee. Shiv Sena, for instance, broke ranks with the NDA. So did a handful of MLAs close to Karnataka BJP leaser BS Yediyurappa. The two had developed a good rapport after the then finance minister’s advice on a personal matter came in handy for the Karnataka CM.

A perpetual number two in many Congress government, Mukherjee finally stepped ahead of the Prime Minister’s position in protocol.


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