This was in 2018, when Pranab Mukherjee, then 82, had retired to a government bungalow after touching heights few politicians reach — President, minister in charge of key portfolios, a long career going back to the days of Indira Gandhi and all worldly success.
A man who did not hesitate to express his views, Mukherjee ignored the dismay in the ranks of the party he had been a part of and went right ahead and quoted Jawaharlal Nehru, often at the receiving end of the Sangh Parivar’s attacks, in his speech. But, the inherent message that he did not see RSS as “untouchable” served to underline how he had been courted by BJP and PM Narendra Modi.
For someone who saw so much and travelled so far from the remote Mirati village in Birbhum, the end can hardly define the contradictions life in politics can be and which Mukherjee negotiated with aplomb. He was at the centre of action during UPA, heading a record number of GoMs and playing chief troubleshooter despite a trust deficit with the Gandhis that never quite went away. The roots of the latent discord went back to 1984 when Mukherjee fell out with Rajiv Gandhi in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He denied harbouring leadership ambitions and said Rajiv was misled. Being dropped from the cabinet in 1984 was a shock, and after parting ways with Congress, he returned six years later. When the time came, he proved a dependable guide for Sonia Gandhi as she stepped into a new political role, entering Parliament in 1999.
If he continued to rise, it was because Mukherjee was a manager par excellence who worked across the communal, secular, socialist, capitalist and corporate aisles and formed part of a group that did not have enemies but only rivals in politics. Today, the likes of Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav are fading. Mukherjee was the best of the bunch.
For all his political friendships, Mukherjee was a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman, a key planner and strategist irrespective of whether the party was in office or in Opposition. His sharp mind caught Indira Gandhi’s attention and she brought him to Rajya Sabha, making him deputy and minister of state for economic portfolios before he became finance minister in 1982. He never forgot his debt to his mentor, often recalling her as India’s greatest PM and a realist who ordered Pokhran 1.
Mukherjee continued to hold important assignments in the Narasimha Rao government as deputy chair of Planning Commission and then as cabinet minister. He was Rao’s choice for political tasks, too. His report on the Tamil Nadu situation ahead of the 1996 polls proved prophetic. He advocated an alliance with DMK, advice that Rao ignored, leading to G K Moopanar and P Chidambaram forming Tamil Maanila Congress. TMC and DMK swept the state, making a crucial difference for Rao and Congress.
Later, Mukherjee accepted Sonia’s choice of Manmohan Singh as PM, but was never shy of asserting himself. Officials waiting outside cabinet meetings would recall that his loud tones often filtered out, indicating he was doing most of the talking. In the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks, he unleashed verbal salvos against Pakistan daily, blunting more than Singh BJP’s calls for action. Mukherjee was a one-stop shop in UPA, the intersection of politics, policy, ego and turf issues. He did not back away from scraps himself, clashing with Chidambaram over several issues. Their “joint appearance” outside North Block in September 2011 where Mukherjee distanced himself from a note on 2G spectrum will remain a photo op etched in memory. A few months earlier, he had created a stir by writing to Singh saying he suspected a bugging device in his office.
And yet, for all his qualities, the PM’s post remained elusive. High-profile and independentminded, his previous revolt made him unsuitable for the top job when UPA defeated BJP in 2004. Sonia picked Singh, qualified, dependable and bereft of any political and corporate baggage. Mukherjee could not be home minister either – a post that was too powerful for an intrepid politician. Too smart to get stuck on a missed bus, Mukherjee set his sights on a new goal – Rashtrapati Bhavan. He worked hard to win allies across parties. When the time came, he did not appear to be the first choice. This time Mukherjee anticipated the resistance and forced Congress’s hand as “secular” votaries like Mulayam Singh Yadav backed him. On one particular night, Ahmed Patel sat with “dada” till the wee hours, assuring him he was indeed the party’s choice.
Mukherjee was not just an astute politician. He earned respect for his encyclopaedic knowledge of history and the Constitution. He was a key arbiter of the India-US nuclear deal during which he kept the Left engaged – and distracted – until it was too late for the comrades to block the pact. For a man of staunch secular beliefs, he could see religion in a cultural context. Every Durga Puja, he would be in Jangipur and don the bhadralok dhoti and kurta, flaunt his janeu and immerse himself in a 10-day prayer. He used it to good effect in Parliament as he tore into BJP’s political Hindutva by quoting scriptures to highlight the heterogeneity of thought in Hinduism.
Mukherjee ascended even higher when he was bestowed the Bharat Ratna by the Modi government. While Congress leaders attended the award ceremony, the Gandhis and Manmohan Singh did not. By then, Mukherjee had risen above partisan fault lines even as he remained a Congressman by conviction.