As Pranab Mukherjee steps down as the 13th President of India, curtains will be drawn on an active political career spanning five decades, when he was either in the centre stage or a prompter from the wings. The Congress in West Bengal had split in the run-up to the 1967 elections and Bangla Congress was formed. Its leader, Ajoy Mukherjee headed the non-Congress coalition formed with the Communists, which did not last long. Indira Gandhi wanted to wean back the dissidents so that “pro-China CPM” could be checked. She relied upon veteran freedom fighter Satish Chandra Samanta to build a bridge with his colleague Ajoy Mukherjee. As the overture progressed, Samanta’s health declined and he told Mrs Gandhi that the task should be taken forward by a young Bangla Congress activist, Pranab Mukherjee. To her query, “SatishDa, is he dependable?” the freedom fighter replied, “Yes, he is”. Thus began Pranab Mukherjee’s journey in New Delhi’s corridors of power. In 1969, Bangla Congress nominated the 34-year-old college teacher to the Rajya Sabha. As Bangla Congress split and declined post Mrs Gandhi’s 1971 electoral triumph, he joined Congress.
As Bangla Congress member, he had made a mark in Rajya Sabha debates. This, combined with the relationship he had developed with Mrs Gandhi following Samanta’s remark, saw his induction as deputy minister in 1973; elevation as minister of state in 1974 and further elevation as minister of state with independent charge of revenue and banking in 1975. (The Finance Ministry was split—revenue and banking were hived off. When H.M. Patel became the Finance Minister in 1977 Janata regime, he was initially designated Minister for Finance, Revenue and Banking—the hived departments were re-merged later.)
Having enjoyed the confidence of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi in the 1975-77 period, it was axiomatic that when Congress spilt in 1978, Mukherjee was appointed the Congress (I) treasurer, a post he handed over to Sitaram Kesari after being inducted into the Union Cabinet in 1980. He played yeoman role in the formation of Congress (I). With party veterans choosing to challenge Mrs Gandhi in her short period out of power, Mukherjee with people like Tarun Gogoi formed the core team of firebrands who went from one state capital to another mustering support for their leader. The person whose home was chosen for this interaction in Mumbai was Pratibha Patil, who preceded Mukherjee as President.
A quintessential Congressman, Mukherjee is the son of freedom fighter Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, who was district president of Congress in Birbhum in 1947. There are stories of how the senior Mukherjee stood his ground in rural Bengal when the Naxalite movement seized the state. Before making his mark as a parliamentarian, Pranab Mukherjee had been assigned by Bangla Congress to manage the byelection in Midnapore, which sent V.K. Krishna Menon back to Parliament after he was defeated in Mumbai. He acted as translator for Menon’s long English speeches (it’s said that Mukherjee used to compress the speech and add local political flavour, which was better understood by the electorate).
The confidence that Mrs Gandhi had in him was evident when he was made Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha in 1980 and also asked by the Prime Minister to preside over the political affairs committee (CCPA) in her absence. R.Venkataraman, P.V.Narasimha Rao and N.D. Tiwari were the other CCPA members. Mrs Gandhi’s political secretary, M.L. Fotedar once recalled to this writer the deftness with which Mukherjee handled this responsibility, ensuring quick decisions on the lines desired by the Prime Minister.
In his long and perhaps chequered career, Mukherjee had to see days when Venkataraman became the President; Narasimha Rao became PM under whom he served as minister. Dr Manmohan Singh, in whose Cabinet he served with dexterity, was appointed Reserve Bank Governor during Mukherjee’s tenure as Finance Minister in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet. Being a team player he maintained decorum and propriety. This writer once asked Mukherjee how he addressed Narasimha Rao, whom he used to call “PV” while presiding over CCPA. “In official meetings I address him as Mr Prime Minister, Sir. In private I still call him PV,” he replied.
The first ever major tranche from World Bank was negotiated by Mukherjee in the 1980s. This was the harbinger of the reforms process, which gained momentum in 1991. When Mukherjee went to Washington as External Affairs Minister, President Bill Clinton agreed to have a “handshake photo opportunity” in White House—this was a pioneering moment in India-US relations. No previous foreign minister had been accorded this status till then. The advantage Mukherjee had in his last decade as minister was that in the world community his seniority—a minister with four decades’ experience—gave him a niche position.
There has been speculation on the role Mukherjee will play post 24 July 2017. During his farewell visit to Jangipur, the area which twice sent him to Lok Sabha, he scotched all talk of active political work by saying that as a tradition, the President has no work post retirement and he intends abiding by that custom. A foundation is being set up in his name. One hopes the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation will take a leaf from the experience of Germany’s Willy Brandt Foundation in Berlin, which does historical research with a view to helping people to understand German and European history in the 20th century. Knowledge of the evolution of India that is Bharat, as envisaged by the members of the Constituent Assembly, needs to be dissipated. Maybe the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation would work on this as well.