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Never the Numero Uno in Govt, Indispensable Pranab Mukherjee Always Held Pole Position in Politics

By: Sankhadip Das

Last Updated: August 31, 2020, 19:42 IST

File photo of former president Pranab Mukherjee. (PTI)

File photo of former president Pranab Mukherjee. (PTI)

With Pranab Mukherjee's death, an entire generation of the Congress is coming to an end. Perhaps, he was the only one who remembered the history of the Congress right from 1885 along with all events and their dates. He had also learned the constitution of the Congress by heart.

The oath-taking ceremony happened the previous evening. The first cabinet meeting also took place the following morning, though portfolios were yet to be announced. Pranab Mukherjee was sitting in his home office. The phone rang, and it was Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader K Chandrashekar Rao, Pranab’s new cabinet colleague. Visibly upbeat, Mukherjee said, “Congratulations Chandrashekar Ji. You have attended the first meeting of the cabinet… I will discuss the separate state issue with you in the coming week.”

In 2004, responding to her inner voice, Sonia Gandhi gave up her claim for the chair of Prime Minister and nominated Manmohan Singh for the coveted post. The same man whom Pranab had appointed the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor two decades ago when he was the finance minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Pranab might have been a little disappointed with this decision. Though, with utmost grace, he welcomed Manmohan, whom he fondly called “Doctor Saab”.

But somewhere in his mind, he saw himself becoming the home minister. He also was the Parliamentary Home Consultative Committee chairman during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as PM. Perhaps that is why from right after the first cabinet meeting, he started studying the files related to ‘home issues’. The separate Telangana state issue was also one of those.

But when the portfolios were announced in the evening, Pranab was the defence minister. Nobody ever saw him showing his dejection. Rather, he accepted the ministry bestowed on him with utter dignity. But Pranab could read the writing on the wall that day. The trust deficit between him and the Gandhi family that started since the Rajiv Gandhi time was still there. Though Pranab would burn the midnight oil drafting the common minimum programme with the Left, would head hundreds of groups of ministers (GoMs), be the principal troubleshooter for the party and the government, he would never become the ‘number one’.


Pranab could never become the number one in the government, but in national politics, he always held a dominant position. He was the antithesis to antagonism, hate and vindictiveness, the usual practices of Indian politics. He would never consider his political opponents as enemies. He believed in the accommodation of more people through debate and discussions.

In the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Pranab Mukherjee was the driving force, the man of coalition. Thanks to his expert navigation skills, the Congress could hold a stable government with mere 145 seats for 5 years. Pranab used to execute a humongous task with his ultra-human efforts. On one hand, as leader of the Lok Sabha, he used to ensure the smooth running of Parliament. As head of numerous GoMs, he used to oversee and warrant the speedy resolutions of issues. On the other hand, maintaining continuous coordination with the alliance partners was quite a task, the Left parties being a pain in particular. Over and above, works of his own ministries, initially defence, then external affairs and after that the finance ministry which he took over in the time of The Great Recession in 2008, were always his focus areas.

He enjoyed great relations with all coalition members. So much so that some of them had started considering him as family. He even had great relations and friends in the Opposition. He was on very good terms with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well. There was a time when both of them used to go for a walk together in the morning and be at each other’s place on alternate days for tea. Pranab used to say without any hesitation that he regarded Atal Bihari Vajpayee as one of the best parliamentarians.

Because of his accommodative politics only, he never had any issues with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a fierce political opponent of the Congress party. A couple of days after Narendra Modi took oath as Prime Minister, he visited Pranab at Rashtrapati Bhawan. Modi had told Pranab, “Dada, agar koi bhul chuk ho jaaye to aap mujhe bula lijiyega, main turrant aa jaunga. And if there would be any important decision that my cabinet will take, you will be informed first by the minister concerned. My ministers will come and discuss issues with you and take suggestions from you." Witnessing this attitude from the Prime Minister, Pranab was extremely happy, as he told me in an informal chat. Pranab also used to praise Narendra Modi saying he is very hardworking, he is very laborious. Modi also kept his word. For various important issues, his ministers visited Pranab to take his guidance. Even on last Diwali, Modi visited him and had a long chat with him for over an hour.

With Pranab’s death, an entire generation of Congress is coming to an end. Perhaps, he was the only one who remembered the history of Congress right from 1885 along with all events and their dates. He had learned the constitution of the Congress by heart. During Congress working committee meetings, it was Pranab who used to draft all resolutions. His knowledge of the Congress constitution was so in-depth that he could devise his political plans utilising minute details from it. Once to support the replacement of PV Narasimha Rao with Sitaram Kesari as Congress president without an organisational election, he dug out a provision from the party constitution. Again, while replacing Kesari with Sonia Gandhi, he cited another provision from the same rule book to support the party’s decision. Such was Pranab’s exhaustive understanding of the constitutional specifics of the Congress party.

Thus, Pranab became completely indispensable for the party and the government, and perhaps this indispensability was an obstacle for him. Pranab Babu realised that he would never reign in the Prime Minister’s chair and maybe that is why he aspired for the presidential election in 2007. Though he never disclosed his aspiration to even his closest friends. But when Sonia Gandhi started discussions about the selection of a presidential candidate, the Left leaders named Pranab as the most suitable candidate. Sonia outright replied that it was impossible for her to let Pranab go from the party and Parliament. After two days, she called Pranab in the evening to 10 Janpath. She said, “I know there is no one better than you for the presidential candidature, but you suggest a name who can be your able successor in the government and Parliament.” Pranab burst into laughter hearing Sonia’s googly. Sonia joined in laughing.

After a few days, Pranab shared in light humour, “Thought of taking some rest in the great big house, but not seeing that happening as yet.”

However, 5 years later, in 2012, the indispensability which became a roadblock for him was the reason why the Congress had to make him their presidential candidate. Because by then the Congress was facing heat for multiple scams such as Commonwealth, 2G spectrum, Aadarsh, etc. Even among alliance partners the same equation did not exist anymore. If the Congress would have proposed any other names than Pranab, they would have lost. He was the only man who enjoyed acceptability among all partners as well as other regional outfits. As a matter of fact, even the Shiv Sena supported him.

After the Congress announced his name as presidential candidate, he started seeking support from every party. But he was very upset with the Trinamool Congress. When Sonia Gandhi had proposed Pranab’s name, Mamata Banerjee had opposed it. Not only did she not agree with the decision, she had even expressed her position in front of the media. This had really dismayed Pranab. But a few MPs from the TMC started visiting Pranab’s private residence at Greater Kailash and said that they would cross-vote for him even if the party decides not to. Mamata Banerjee also came to know about it. There were feelers coming in, that if Pranab would call Mamata, she would extend her support. Pranab Babu never made a call to Mamata to seek her support. Eventually, Mamata also came under pressure because Pranab was the first Bengali about to become the President of India and it would be rather odd if the ruling party of the state did not support him. Mamata finally had to come to Delhi to visit Pranab and extend her support to him. After this, relations between them were restored. Though not in context, I wanted to mention here that in 1984, Pranab Babu was the one behind nominating Mamata Banerjee as a Lok Sabha candidate for the first time.

Pranab studied in a school in his village, Miriti. Father Kamada Kinkar Mukhopadhyay was a freedom fighter and a Congressman. Pranab was not a very scholarly student, but his interest to know new things was vast. Particularly political history was the focus of his curiosity. Like a jeweller knows the jewels, Ajay Mukhopadhyay recognised Pranab. In 1960, when Ajay Mukherjee broke away from the Congress party and formed Bangla Congress, he relied on Pranab for drafting the constitution and for several political issues. Bangla Congress didn’t live long. Pranab came back to the Congress.

He became a Member of Parliament in 1968. While delivering a speech in favour of the motion on nationalisation of banks, in the Rajya Sabha, Indira Gandhi noticed him. That was the beginning. Pranab never had to look back. He went on to become the deputy minister, then he became the minister of state, and the rest is history. Now Pranab wanted to be a people’s representative. In 1980, he requested that he will be fighting the Lok Sabha elections from West Bengal’s Bolpur constituency. However, Indira Gandhi suggested that he should not contest the polls. She said that the politics of Bengal was different, the Left was absolutely strong there and that he did not spend a lot of time in his home state. There were high chances that he may not be able to win. But he did not pay heed to the suggestion and contested elections from the constituency of Bolpur. He lost by a huge margin. Indira Gandhi came to know about it and knew that he would be extremely sad, so she sent Sanjay Gandhi to the Delhi airport to receive him and bring him back to her. She scolded him and said that he was doing great work in the cabinet but that did not mean that he understood the people’s pulse. Indira Gandhi asked him to head home and that the cabinet secretary would call him. He was later informed that he had been included in the cabinet.

Pranab’s eyes would become moist while remembering the love and affection he received from Indira. Pranab shared one day that Indira Gandhi had brought him a holy pendant from Anandamayi Maa in Haridwar and asked him to keep it with him always. He did that. It may sound uncanny but the day when Pranab met with a major road accident in Bengal, he was not carrying the holy pendant with him. I later checked for my own curiosity and he confirmed this. Pranab had unending respect and loyalty towards Indira. After the Emergency, when the closest of people were also distancing from her, Pranab stood strong as a witness in favour of Indira in the Shah Commission investigation. In 1980, after Indira came back to power, Pranab was made a cabinet minister. After two years, he was given the charge of the finance ministry. Pranab emerged as a successful finance minister and also received a best finance minister award.

Indira would consult him for every critical issue and decision making. She would even change important decisions after discussions with Pranab. He became the second in command in the Indira Gandhi cabinet.

After Indira’s death, it was only natural that he became more ambitious. It was this that led to the trust deficit between him and the Gandhi family. He was later expelled from the party. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi got him back into the party for the betterment of the government and the Congress. But the trust deficit that started then, continued to remain between him and the dynasty.

Later, when Sonia Gandhi took the reins of the party, the relation between Pranab and the Gandhis saw a new beginning. As the resolution was supposed to be formed for the Pachmarhi conclave, a Congress working committee member told her that he knew someone, who would be the best person to form the resolution, but Sonia might not like him. To this, she retorted that the party’s interest was of foremost importance and it did not matter whom she personally liked or disliked. Then he named Pranab Mukherjee and Sonia agreed in no time.

After this, relations between Pranab and Sonia improved tremendously. In the UPA regime they became great working partners. Pranab had always stood by Sonia in all weathers. Sonia equally reciprocated by being concerned about Pranab’s well being. Even after becoming the President, the essence of that relationship remained intact. However, that never translated into the amount of trust that would let Pranab attain his long-cherished aspiration.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)