In an administrative and political career spanning over 50 years, the one thing that is positively enigmatic about him is Pranab Mukherjee ‘s ability to form friendly, healthy and non-toxic relationships with critics as well as people with different ideology than his. It was his humble nature, simple appearance and expansive knowledge of varied subjects that focused our attention on him, especially when the UPA was in power.
The former Indian President and Bharat Ratna recipient Pranab Mukherjee passed away at the age of 84, on Monday at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in New Delhi where he had undergone surgery earlier this month. He was the Congress party’s man for all seasons, whose services were often required for crisis management because of his intimate knowledge of both the government and the party.
When Pranab Mukherjee was elected as the President of India in 2012, the veteran leader of the BJP-L.K Advani said and I quote, “If anything is able to conceal the historic blunders of the UPA government, it is Pranab Mukherjee.” That was enough to understand the kind of aura Pranab Da maintained even among the opposition leaders. He got the support of many opposition parties when he contested for presidency and was elected almost undisputed.
He entered politics back in 1969 when late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made him a member of the Rajya Sabha. His first stint was as the Finance Minister from 1982 to 1984. He was also the leader the Rajya Sabha from 1980 to 1985. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao made him the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in 1991 and eventually the Minister of External Affairs in 1995.
Mukherjee won his first Lok Sabha election in 2004. Until his resignation in 2012, he was the no. 2 in the cabinet of Dr. Manmohan Singh. He held several key cabinet portfolios – Defence (2004-06), External Affairs (2006-09) and Finance (2009-12) along with being the leader of the House. In July 2012, Mukherjee comfortably defeated P.A. Sangma to become the 13th President of India.
Despite his resoundingly successful career in the Indian government, the one post which eluded him was that of the Prime Minister, a position he believed was his due. However, his ambitions were thwarted twice, just when he assumed the post was within grasp. In 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Mukherjee felt that as the most senior minister and by far and the most qualified; he was the obvious candidate to take her place. In 2004, after the UPA victory when Sonia Gandhi declined to be Prime Minister, Mukherjee again assumed that he was the obvious candidate. Instead, Sonia Gandhi chose Manmohan Singh, a man who had once worked under Mukherjee as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) when he was the Finance Minister.
As External Affairs Minister in Singh’s cabinet, he oversaw the signing of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement with the Bush government. As the Finance Minister, ten years before economic liberalisation, he encouraged NRIs to invest in the Indian economy and was also responsible for many tax reforms and introduced a measure of accountability.
One of Mukherjee’s many strengths was his ability to develop cordial relations with leaders across the political spectrum. The late Arun Jaitely named Mukherjee unquestionably the man he admired the most in the Congress party. After he stepped down as the President of India in 2017, Mukherjee took the controversial step of visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur and meeting its chief Mohan Bhagwat.
A Bangla cultural fanatic, the former President was extremely popular in Bangladesh as well. He maintained close personal ties with Sheikh Hasina. This is the reason that Bangladesh observed a day’s mourning post his death.
In 2018, the Government of India announced Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour of the country, for him. Around the same time, he addressed a gathering at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had pleaded with him to address the organisation’s conclave as President, but Mr. Mukherjee waited until after he left the office. The speech was an endorsement of Hindutva nationalism and a critique of it, both at the same time.
Pranab Da also became the first Indian president to take a class on Indian political history of some students on Teacher’s day in 2015. One could see his hold on the subject and his activeness even at the age of 80. He was thus given the name-‘The Political President’.
A criticism that ranked Mukherjee was that his detractors described him as a pipe-smoking armchair politician because of his long years in the Upper House. Late in life, he proved he could also be a grassroots politician by winning the Lok Sabha elections from Jangipur in 2004. He was re-elected from the constituency in 2009, an achievement that he was very proud of.
Pranab Mukherjee will always be alive in our memories as a humble, peace-loving and intelectually adept man.
Also read: Pranab Mukherjee passes away at 84