The man for all reasons
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No one need be surprised by the steady surge in support for Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's election as the next incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Not only Congress's allies in the ruling United Progressive Alliance but also others, on the opposite side of the political fence, are rallying round him. Interestingly, his own Congress party — which, in this instance, means only the party "high command" — has yet to choose between him and the other front-runner, Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Whatever the final outcome, the reasons for the respect and popularity Pranabda enjoys ought to be clear.
After all, practically single-handedly, he runs the government, resolving endless and serious differences within through groups of ministers, sometimes called Empowered GoMs, usually headed by him. With the government's bitter opponents and trenchant critics, he acts as a bridge no matter how intensely polarised the atmosphere. A perceptive commentator has described him as the "front person, reference point, troubleshooter, lightning rod, live wire, fulcrum, flywheel and indeed the very heart and soul of the government". This is a stupendous, in fact mind-boggling, achievement for someone who has had modest beginnings, a roller coaster-like career and at least one blot on his copybook — the Shah Commission's strictures against him for his role during the Emergency.
He was born in 1936 in rural Bengal in a family of freedom fighters. His father, Damodar Ranjan Mukherjee, a staunch Gandhian, was impecunious, if only because he was constantly shuttling between jail and home. The family had to live most frugally; young Pranab had to walk a few miles to the nearest school.
By the later half of the decade of 1950s, Pranabda had obtained his Masters degree, secured a lecturer's job in a district college and joined politics. The Indian National Congress was his natural choice. But thanks to the autocratic ways of Atulya Ghosh, who controlled the West Bengal Congress with an iron hand, there was a major split in the party. Ajoy Mukherjee, a fine leader expelled most unfairly, formed the Bangla Congress, and young Pranab threw his lot with it.
In 1967, when Ajoybabu led a short-lived United Front government in cooperation with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Pranabda was elected to Rajya Sabha as a Bangla Congress member. During the power struggle between Indira Gandhi and the Syndicate of Congress party bosses that included Atulya Ghosh, however, the prime minister inducted him into the Congress. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed deputy minister in the shipping ministry. The shipping minister, Kamalapati Tripathi, a laidback leader of the old school, was so impressed by the work of his young and industrious deputy that he made it a point to mention this to the prime minister.
During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi needed a new minister of state for revenue in the finance ministry in something of a hurry. Her choice fell on Pranabda. And so he remained until 1977 when began the Congress's three years in the wilderness. In 1980, he lost the election to Lok Sabha. Even so, in recognition of his meritorious services and loyalty to her at a time when Congress leaders were deserting her in drones, she included him in her cabinet as commerce minister and got him elected to Rajya Sabha from — of all states — Gujarat. Later, he became her finance minister.
On the day of Indira Gandhi's assassination, Pranabda was in Calcutta, accompanying Rajiv Gandhi. Amidst overwhelming grief, Rajiv and his companions boarded the flight back to Delhi. At some stage during the journey, Pranabda had a brief conversation with Rajiv that seems to be haunting him to this day. There are several conflicting versions of it. But the most plausible seems be that the finance minister mentioned to the slain prime minister's son and anointed successor that the established procedure was to swear-in the most senior minister in the outgoing cabinet as prime minister for an "interim" period so that the party could elect its new leader without being under stress. Going by the consequences that followed, however, this seems to have been interpreted as Pranab Mukherjee's declaration of his own ambition.
Until the December 1984 election, Rajiv Gandhi retained the cabinet he had inherited from his mother. But with the fresh poll that gave him the biggest ever majority, Pranabda was out of both the party and the government. He formed his own party that did not amount to anything.
I remember seeing him all too often during this period in Parliament's Central Hall, sitting by himself and sipping coffee quietly.
It was Rajiv himself who brought Pranabda back into the Congress. The job he was given initially was that of the party's "spokesperson". After the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar interlude, the Congress was back in power with P.V. Narasimha Rao as prime minister. Pranabda was back in the cabinet to his old portfolio of commerce. But this time round there was a lot more to do. He conducted the delicate negotiations that led to the formation of the WTO. Later, he was minister for external affairs. In 1996, the Congress was defeated and remained out of power for eight years. The story since 2004 is too well known to need recounting.
In the present all-absorbing excitement over the presidential sweepstakes, two pertinent questions are being asked. The first is: why, for his yeoman services, Pranabda is not being rewarded with the office of prime minister instead of being "kicked upstairs" to the post of the constitutional head of state? Sadly, that is where the "trust deficit" dating back to 1984 comes in. Also, is there any guarantee that the Congress-led combination will return to power in 2014?
Second, many are inquiring why Pranabda should want a largely ceremonial post when his formidable talent and incomparable experience are needed for more important tasks. The answer is simple: whoever has borne such an enormous, indeed unimaginable, strain for eight long years (I am told he has to work until
11 at night and have his dinner only then!) would want some respite sometime. Certainly when he is 76 and will be two years older at the time of the next general election.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator
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