Pranab Mukherjee, Last of the Grand Bengali Politicians of India

Mukherjee was considered by many – as well as by himself – as ideal prime ministerial material. He never got the top job, but his role as president disappointed many for the way he served as rubber-stamp for controversial decisions.

New Delhi: On August 31, Pranab Mukherjee, former president of India, former finance and external affairs minister and winner of India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, breathed his last. He was 84 years old. 

Mukherjee had tested COVID-19 positive earlier this month and had had to undergo a brain surgery to remove a clot at the Army’s Research and Referral Hospital in New Delhi. He passed away after 21 days of hospitalisation, at around afternoon on Monday.

Mukherjee was India’s 13th president (July 2012 to July 2017) and by the time he took up the position, he had already had a long public life by dint of being a senior Congressman who held a number of important cabinet positions in four governments spanning from the early 1970s till the end-2000s.

Most importantly, Mukherjee, born in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, was the last prominent Bengali face in the political-scape of New Delhi. He became the first president of India from Bengal.

Also read: Wave of Peaceful Protests Will Help Deepen India’s Democratic Roots: Pranab Mukherjee

Born on December 11, 1935, to Rajalakhsmi Mukherjee and Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, a former member of the West Bengal Legislative Council, Pranab da, as he was popularly known among his colleagues and in media circles, began his working life as an upper division clerk in the Post and Telegraph Office in Kolkata before taking up the job of a political science lecturer at the city’s Vidya Sagar College in 1963. Mukherjee was a postgraduate in political science from Calcutta University and later acquired a law degree too.

Before joining the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1969, he was involved in the successful election of V.K. Krishna Menon as an independent from Bengal’s Midnapore Lok Sabha constituency. He became a founding member of Bengal Congress and successfully won a Rajya Sabha seat in July 1969 as a Bengal Congress member. Thereafter, at Indira Gandhi’s behest, he moved to the INC and since then, there was no looking back.

He went on to become one of the few Gandhi loyalists who managed to remain an MP and close to the power corridors of Delhi through the Upper House route for five consecutive terms.

Mukherjee, in his long political career, had barely fought an election and therefore was never counted as a mass leader. In 2004, he contested the Lok Sabha elections for the first time, from Jangipur, and was successful. He won the seat again in 2009.

Considered one from the close coterie around Indira Gandhi, Mukherjee became a Union minister in 1973. He went on to stand by her side during the controversial Emergency, when democratic rights were suspended from 1975 to 1977. He was indicted for his controversial role during that period by the Shah Commission set up by the Morarji Desai-led Janata government, though he succeeded in emerging from the matter unscathed as the Commission was disbanded by Indira Gandhi once she returned to power in 1980.

A soft speaking, pipe smoking, ambitious politician who maintained close relations with ‘7 RCR’, the prime minister’s residence, Mukherjee went on to become finance minister in the second Indira Gandhi government. It was during his tenure that Manmohan Singh was appointed governor of the Reserve Bank of India. That India could return the first IMF loan during his tenure is counted as one of his career feats.

Pranab Mukherjee and Dr Manmohan Singh. Photo: File

Mukherjee, however, lost his prominence in the party after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, which led to the rise of her son Rajiv Gandhi to the top post. Along came a new Congress power brigade, young and enthusiastic, eager to please a young prime minister hoping to take India on the technology highway.

The grapevine had it that Mukherjee had been keen to succeed Indira Gandhi, something he always denied, but the rumours might have played a part in Rajiv Gandhis’ decision to pack him off to West Bengal as head of the state Pradesh Congress Committee. A peeved Mukherjee left the Congress to start the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress in his home state. Though the party fought the assembly polls in 1987, it met with a drubbing.

Following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, Mukherjee worked his way back to the Congress in Delhi under P.V. Narashima Rao. After a stint in the Planning Commission as deputy chairman (1991), he returned to the cabinet in 1995 and served as external affairs minister for the first time.

Mukherjee is considered to be a factor behind bringing Sonia Gandhi to politics in 1998 and served as the All India Congress Committee general secretary when she became party president that year. Between 2000 and 2010, he continued to also be the president of the Congress unit in Bengal. He was the Congress’s leader in the Lok Sabha in 2004.

Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee. Photo: Reuters

In a dramatic move, when Sonia Gandhi, setting aside all expectations, refused to sit on the prime minister’s chair after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) win in 2004, many in media and party circles had speculated that Mukherjee would be keen to take it up. Instead, she pinned her hopes on Manmohan Singh.

Though Mukherjee virtually became the second in command in the two successive Singh governments, with high profile portfolios like external affairs, defence and finance, his supposed hopes for the prime ministerial post were dashed. Though in 2007, his name did do the rounds as a Congress nominee for the presidential elections that year, he was formally chosen as the party’s candidate in 2012. 

During his term at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee had a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So much so that his government awarded him the Bharat Ratna in 2019.

As president, Mukherjee went along with the controversial imposition of president’s rule in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, decisions which the courts reversed because they were plainly untenable. He was also criticised for allowing the Modi government to repeatedly re-promulgate its eventually withdrawn land acquisition ordinance.

Pranab Mukherjee with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: pranabmukherjee.nic.in

In journalist Sonia Singh’s book Defining India Through their Eyes, Mukherjee was asked about the political messaging behind the Modi government’s move. He had said, “I feel this is a larger recognition, not a recognition of an individual.”

“In fact, in this case, I entirely agree with Rahul Gandhi. I felt this was one of the best tweets that ever came complimenting me, when he tweeted shortly after the announcement— “Congratulations to Pranab Da on being awarded the Bharat Ratna. The Congress takes great pride in the fact that the immense contribution to public service and nation building of one of our own, has been recognized and honoured.”

“This is the recognition of one of our man’s contribution,” Pranab Mukherjee says. ‘That means a recognition of a Congressman’s contribution. I take it in that way.’

The BJP and its ideological fount, the RSS, continued to cultivate Mukherjee even after his retirement as the president, for his sheer appeal to his community as a chip-off-the-old-block of the tall Bengali bhadralok and influencer nationally.  In 2018, the veteran former Congressman was invited to the RSS’s founding day at Nagpur.

Former president Pranab Mukherjee with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur. Credit: PTI

Mukherjee, playing ball, called the Hindutva outfit’s founder K.B. Hedgewar “a great son of Mother India”. After his speech from the RSS platform to its cadres, and one by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS spokesman said that their speeches complemented each other.

At the meeting, held clearly to pander to the Hindu Bengali sentiments to augment the scope of the BJP to further strengthen itself in West Bengal, the family of Subhash Chandra Bose was also invited as special guests.

Also read: Pranab Mukherjee’s Visit to Nagpur a Win-Win for RSS

In the 2019 general elections, the bonhomie between Mukherjee and the RSS-BJP did help the BJP corner votes from Bengali Hindu dominated areas in several states for Modi’s re-election. 

Today, on his passing, it can safely be said that the last of the stalwarts from Bengal to have commanded power in Delhi has departed.