Pranab Mukherjee was the last of a particular type of leader created by the Congress
He was as much at home with the nitty-gritty of administrative detail, the key to ministerial success, as he was with the intricate calculations that went into party management
Pranab Mukherjee, who passed away on Monday, capped a long and remarkable career in politics and public life by ascending to the post of President of India. His tenure in Rashtrapati Bhavan was not something in any sense presaged by the circumstances of his birth in Mirati village, Birbhum district, in 1935.
Mukherjee's youth and early adulthood can be seen in myriad ways as a perfect apprenticeship for what he ultimately chose: A public life in politics. In college and university, he earned graduate and postgraduate degrees in history, law and political science from the University of Calcutta, grounding himself in precisely those fields of the liberal arts and social sciences that would give him the intellectual discipline that would serve him well as a politician.
Subsequently, he worked as a clerk in a government office and a lecturer in a well-known Calcutta college. Between times, he also worked briefly as a journalist. These, too, were good training spells for the intricacies of political life.
In retrospect, too, we could see as an augury the fact that Mukherjee did not start his career in the Congress. Rather, it was Ajoy Mukherjee, leader of the breakaway Bangla Congress and twice chief minister of Bengal heading United Front governments after the elections of 1967 and 1969, who brought him into politics.
In 1969, Pranab Mukherjee managed the successful election campaign of VK Krishna Menon, the Congress stalwart who had been denied in 1967 the ticket for the South Bombay constituency which he had then held, from Midnapur. Mukherjee was elected to the Rajya Sabha in the same year on a Bangla Congress ticket. And it was then that he caught Indira Gandhi's eye.
The timing was fortuitous, because the seismic split in the Congress was in the works and when it materialised in December 1969, Indira needed all the talent she could mobilise.
Mukherjee joined the Congress the next year and in 1973 joined Indira's council of minister as a deputy minister. In October 1974, he was elevated to the position of minister of state (MoS) in the Ministry of Finance. But his big break came at the end of the year, six-odd months after the imposition of the Emergency, when he became MoS with the Independent Charge of the newly-created Department of Revenue and Banking.
Tasked with implementing various draconian laws to deal with economic offences — the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (1973), Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (1974) and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (1976), Mukherjee excelled at his job, a fact that earned him the strictures of the Shah Commission, instituted by the Janata Party government in 1977 to probe Emergency excesses.
The political/historical scuttlebutt has it that Mukherjee's meteoric rise through the ranks of the party, including the job at the helm of the banking and revenue department, owed much to Sanjay Gandhi’s patronage. Whatever the truth of that bit of speculation, there can be little doubt that he acquitted himself with great distinction at whatever job in government or Parliament that was entrusted to him. True to his reputation as an outspoken man, Mukherjee never ran the younger Gandhi sibling down and acknowledged both his proximity and debt to Sanjay.
His efficiency and loyalty soon made him one of Indira's closest confidants during the Emergency and in the difficult times that followed. Mukherjee was one of the few senior Congress leaders who joined Mrs. Gandhi when the party split for a second time in January 1978. And after the Congress (I) won the 1980 Lok Sabha elections by a landslide, he became, first, Cabinet minister for commerce, and steel and mines, then finance minister (the first of three stints), to which, days before Indira died, was added the additional charge of, again, commerce, and steel and mines.
Journalists who had occasion to speak with Mukherjee at length came away with a singular impression of the breadth of his knowledge of politics and the acuity of his understanding of it. The raft of obituaries that have appeared in the media, by journalists who had spent time with him, close colleagues and others, all attest to his encyclopaedic knowledge and his elephantine memory, both inestimable assets for a politician.
After 1970, Mukherjee had just one falling out with the Congress. This was, as is well known, in the months following Indira's assassination in 1984. Mukherjee was first left out of the council of ministers by then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, then dropped from key party fora, including the Congress Working Committee and Parliamentary Board, and then, in April 1986 expelled from the party. He floated his own outfit — the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress — but merged it with the Congress in 1989.
Mukherjee's fall from grace and his rift with the Congress and the Gandhi family, both of which were subsequently fully healed, was clearly because Mukherjee harboured an ambition for the prime ministerial office.
How clearly that had been articulated after Indira's death is not clear, though it is obvious that Rajiv felt threatened enough to leave out an extremely competent minister and party manager out in the cold, banishing him to Bengal to become, for a short stint, the president of the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC). As Mukherjee once pointed out, despite the vast gulf in political experience between them, he was just nine years older, not yet 50 when Indira died.
Once back, however, Mukherjee prospered in the party, becoming in succession deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, minister for commerce and minister for external affairs in the government led by PV Narasimha Rao. He gathered enough traction in the party and with the family, to become minister for defence, external affairs and finance in successive United Progressive Alliance, before concluding his active political career to become president.
One of the conceivable reasons for Mukherjee’s failure to make a realistic bid for the '7 RCR' job was the lack of a mass base. From 1969 to 2002, Mukherjee remained a member of the Rajya Sabha, being elected to the Lower House from Jangipur, Murshidabad, only twice: in 2004 and 2009. His involvement in state politics, too, was not particularly significant. Though he was West Bengal PCC president from 2000 to 2010, his stewardship came at a time when the Congress had ceased to be a force in Bengal. This divorce from state politics, in a comparative sense, is surprising, given Mukherjee's virtually unparalleled grasp of Bengal’s politics, political geography and political history.
History will possibly remember Mukherjee as one of the last, and brightest, examples of a particular type of politician that the Congress par excellence created. He was as much at home with the nitty-gritty of administrative detail, the key to ministerial success, as he was with the intricate calculations that went into party management. And like a true inheritor of the tradition of a liberal, broad church, he was always able to reach out across political and ideological aisles.
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