In his own words, Pranab Mukherjee’s journey was that of a boy “who moves from a flickering lamp in a village” to the “glittering chandeliers” of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the abode of the President of India in the national capital.
In the words of another illustrious Bengali, it is best summed up in two lines from Mukherjee’s favourite Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems, Utshorgo: “What I want, I want by mistake. What I got, is something I do not want.”
Mukherjee indeed got many things that he never wanted. What he wanted, remained elusive.
During the first tenure of the United Progressive Alliance, he wanted to be Home Minister but was given Defence. He came close to becoming Prime Minister – and was once even backed by Sonia Gandhi – but ended up being the President. He was not included in the cabinet twice at the peak of his career, in 1984 and 1991, had to report to a junior technocrat Manmohan Singh, lost two Lok Sabha elections early in his life which terribly disheartened him, but will be remembered as the quintessential survivor of the tumult of Indian politics.
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee was born in 1935 in Mirati, in South Bengal’s Birbhum district. He was, in his later years as a politician, known for his obsession with printed words and rule books; but described himself in his memoir as “a restless child…with a penchant for avoiding studies”.
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His father Kamada Kinkar, a staunch Congressman and modest land owner, brought up his children in an atmosphere of Congress-defined patriotism in pre-independence India.
But when it came to joining a party, Pranab sided with the Bangla Congress – a short lived left-backed breakaway faction of the Congress, set up and led by Ajoy Mukherjee in 1966.
Pranab Mukherjee suggested the Bangla Congress ally with the Left parties led by Jyoti Basu of Communist Party of India (Marxist) to keep the Congress out of power, and went to the Rajya Sabha in July 1969.
Those were tumultuous days in Indian politics: in November that year Indira Gandhi would be expelled from the Congress and would form the Congress (R). But that July, an uneasy truce prevailed, when Mukherjee stood up to deliver two speeches — one on the abolition of the Bengal Legislative Council, and the second on bank nationalisation.
As Mukherjee later wrote in a piece for India Today, Indira Gandhi was in the house and impressed. “She said, ‘You spoke well.’ And next day, she mentioned my speech. Thereafter, occasionally she used to call me.”
Two years later, Mukherjee engineered the merger of the Bangla Congress with Indira Gandhi’s party, and became a trusted lieutenant who stuck by Gandhi through the Emergency right up to her assassination in 1984.
Despite his proximity to Gandhi, he never established a strong base of his own — either in Bengal or in New Delhi.
“Coming from a deep village to dominate Delhi is an enormously difficult job for a Bengali as he is never backed by his caste group which would rally for him in the national capital, unlike for a north Indian leader,” said Deba Prasad Roy, a former Congress Rajya Sabha MP, who masterminded Mukherjee’s 1993 entry to the Upper House by wooing few Left MLAs.
Meanwhile, Bengal’s Congressmen always complained that Mukherjee did little for the party in his home state. They acknowledged that his strength was in understanding the boardroom games of realpolitik.
Setbacks and Get-Backs
In 1982, Mukherjee was Finance Minister, when stories emerged in the press of his proximity to a rising Gujarati businessman named Dhirubhai Ambani. He became a frequent target of the press and opposition — a bad phase, that would worsen two years later when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and Mukherjee fell foul of her son Rajiv.
There are several versions of why Rajiv and Mukherjee’s relationship disintegrated so rapidly. One version has it that when Mukherjee and Rajiv were flying back from Bengal soon after Indira’s death, when Mukherjee quoted from precedence to say that usually the “number two” in the cabinet fills in if the Prime Minister exits. It was lost on no-one that Mukherjee was often referred as the “number two” in Indira’s cabinet.
Sukendu Sekhar Roy, now a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP and one of Mukherjee’s closest aides, said that the story was spread with a purpose.
It was the action of “gang of four”, Roy said.
“It was two Aruns – Nehru and Singh – Balram Jakhar and Makhanlal Fotedar in Delhi who ganged up against Mukherjee in Delhi, while another gang of four was active in the state, they detested Indira Gandhi’s dependence on Pranab-da,” said Roy.
Mukherjee was dropped from the cabinet in 1984, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the Congress Parliamentary Board and eventually expelled from the party in 1986. He launched Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, with Roy by his side, contested in 200 seats in 1987 Bengal Assembly and forfeited their deposit in nearly all seats.
Sangeeta Ghosh, who wrote a biography of Mukherjee’s wife Suvra, said Mukherjee was totally isolated at this time, “and looking terribly sad”. But by 1989, Mukherjee was back — the Samajwadi Congress merged with the Congress – only to be dropped from P V Narasimha Rao’s cabinet in 1991 and offered the Deputy Chairman’s position in the Planning Commission.
Mukherjee initially refused the offer, but finally took the role on the advice of his friends and family.
“We (Suvra and Roy) convinced him to accept the offer; we remembered his 1986-88 isolation days,” said Roy. By 1995, Mukherjee was the External Affairs Minister and planned Sonia Gandhi’s ascension as party president in 1998.
One of the key chapters of Pranab Mukherjee’s life, considered a successful Foreign Minister, was his association with Bangladesh. When Indira Gandhi decided to fly Sheikh Hasina and her family to Delhi from Germany after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, Mukherjee and his wife took over as the friend and guide of the family in Delhi. The personal fondness grew, bringing the countries together.
“A reason why Bangladesh was so happy to see him as the President of India,” said a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Touhid Hossain.
“He had a sophistication; a maturity. In diplomacy substantive progress is not always expected but the important issue was to be careful about choice of words. Mr Mukherjee was polite unlike what we witness these days from Indian side,” Mr Hossain said.
Mukherjee’s role was “singularly most significant in restoring democracy in Bangladesh”, between 2006-08, when both Sheikh Hasina and the opposition leader Khaleda Zia were behind bars, said an associate of Mukherjee in Bangladesh.
The associate said a book ought to be written on how Mukherjee neutralised the army, ensured that Nobel laureate Md Yunus withdrew himself from politics, and created a level-playing field for the 2008 election.
“But the book cannot be written as Dada said that the information is classified,” he added on condition of anonymity.
For Dada – as Mukherjee is referred to in Delhi but not in Bengal, where he is always the archetypal Bengali bhadralok – the United Progressive Alliance’s unexpected victory in 2004, prompted fresh dreams of becoming Prime Minister.
But the top job continued to elude him as Manmohan Singh was made Prime Minister.
“The disappointment was high and he initially denied to join the cabinet which was reasoned out by his wife. The ministry of his choice – Home – was denied too,” said Gautam Lahiri, a journalist who has just released Okothitho Pranab, or Untold Pranab, a three-part biography of Mukherjee.
Mukherjee almost became Prime Minister in 2012 when, by some accounts, Sonia Gandhi was in favour of replacing Singh with Mukherjee in a bid to prop by the UPA’s sagging public support.
“Congress was under tremendous pressure owing to several scams and a section of Congress opined that Pranab-da should be made the Prime Minister as he is totally clean and it would minimize the anti-incumbency, while Singh can be pushed for the post of President,” said Roy, the TMC member. “But why it did not fructify, I do not know as I joined TMC in 2011. I assume, there was some pressure on Sonia Gandhi.”
Yet, the plan never came to pass. Manmohan Singh remained Prime Minister and Mukherjee became the President — a post he held till July 2017.
The closest Mukherjee would come to the post he long desired, was when he became acting Prime Minister for a few weeks when Manmohan Singh fell ill in 2009.
Tryst with RSS
The last time Mukherjee made news was in 2018, when he visited the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Nagpur headquarters. By then he had mostly retired from public life.
The Congress tried to dissuade him but Mukherjee went ahead anyway; a decision that perhaps helped him secure a Bharat Ratna in 2019.
His final years, his associates say, were spent quoting from his much discussed ‘red diaries’ to pen three volumes of his memoir; the diaries were religiously maintained over the last several decades.
The dairies are packed with explosive material, his associates claim and some of them even asked him when they would be made public. He answered variously that it was to be handed over to his daughter Sharmistha and that the diary “may go down” with him.
At this point the whereabouts and fate of the diaries are unknown; perhaps one day they shall make their way into the public eye and Mukherjee will posthumously return to the public eye – a place he was never far from in the course of a rich life that was never entirely free of controversy and intrigue.