It was a chilly day, the 11th of December. The world was yet to warm up due to pollution, it was yet to experience its biggest war and India was still 12 years away from freedom. In a nondescript village called Mirati, under the erstwhile Bengal presidency of the British Raj, was born a man who would one day wrestle into the world of political heavyweights like no other. It was perhaps destined that this man had to be born from a father who was a freedom fighter and member of West Bengal Legislative Council, apart from being a member of Indian National Congress (INC). The river of fate originating from such a background, took this man to earn MA degree in Political Science and History, along with an LLB from the University of Calcutta. The river of fate took this man to a clerical job in the Office of Deputy Accountant-General (Post and Telegraph) in Kolkata and also to a brief stint as a lecturer of Political Science in the Vidyasagar College of Kolkata. Finally, the river delivered the man in the rough ocean of the great Indian political circus. Thus, was made the leader, Pranab Mukherjee.
The breakthrough and the man for all seasons
Founding the Bangla Congress party and after organizing a successful by-election of an independent candidate, he was catapulted to the Rajya Sabha on a Bangla Congress ticket and there in no time he was recruited by Indira Gandhi, and from there onwards he never had to look back. Pretty soon he would be seen in Indira Gandhi’s company and became her “man for all seasons”. During those days Mukherjee was gracing all cabinet posts with elan whether it be Union Deputy Minister of Industrial Development during early 1970s or Union Finance Minister during early 1980s. His stint as Finance Minister saw India repaying the last installment of the first IMF loan and appointment of Manmohan Singh as Governor of RBI.
The leader in exile
The political heydays of Pranab Mukherjee seemed to be over after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Him being the most likely successor of Gandhi, was shunted out of the powers of corridor into obscurity by Rajiv Gandhi’s team. Feeling alienated and betrayed, he formed the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC) in 1986. RSC failed miserably in 1987 West Bengal Assembly election and it was merged back with INC in 1989 and he returned to INC , althought without any real power
It took the death of another Gandhi to turn the tables of fate in favour of Mukherjee. With Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1991, he made a strong comeback in the PV Narasimha Rao government, where he would end up as the External Affairs Minister during 1995-96. Later, he would steadily rise in ranks of INC – he became the party general secretary in 1998-99 and mentored Sonia Gandhi to the presidency of the party. Finally, the leader was back to his beloved party and this time there wouldn’t be any heartbreaks, or would there be?
The man who wore too many hats
Except for home ministry, Pranab Mukherjee had graced all important cabinet portfolios with his political acumen and presence at different times. He was the leader of Lok Sabha, Minister of Defence, Minister of External Affairs, Minister of Finance, and Minister of Commerce and Industries. Most experts say he became close to being the Prime Minister (PM) but he never did because Gandhi’s didn’t trust him completely. He was perhaps the most eligible PM, India never had. A person as politically astute as him, was always could shouldered by his own party, whenever opportunity arose for handling the top job. Maybe his party was apprehensive of his stature, maybe they knew that he was “the man who knew too much”. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, words were out that Mukherjee being the 2nd most powerful in the cabinet, as the finance minister, would be the most likely successor. But luck would have it otherwise, and he was made an outcaste from his beloved party. Chance would again knock on his door in 2004, when Sonia Gandhi refused to become the PM. Then also he was cold shouldered out of the job to bring in a much less experienced Dr. Manmohan Singh. What testifies for the character of a human? Even after getting snubbed and deprived of what was rightfully his for so many times, he never failed to serve his beloved INC. That makes him respectable across political lines of division.
The crowning glory
At the end of his active political career, Pranab Mukherjee resigned from cabinet to file his nomination to be the president of India. Finally, to all stories of heartbreak and near misses, comes a moment which makes up for all of that. For Pranab Mukherjee, such a moment came in June 2012, when he was sworn in as the 13th President of India. In spite of so many years in the rough oceans of Indian politics, his boat was almost untainted by a single allegation of corruption. He was the overwhelming favourite and people across political divides, voted for him.
The man who knew too many things, probably for the good
Pranab Mukherjee always made it a point to carry a copy of the Indian Constitution in his luggage and could quote it chapter by chapter. In spite of being secular in his outlook, Mukherjee was very well versed in Indian scriptures. Once a parliamentarian from opposition was quoting a shloka from one of the scriptures wrong, Mukherjee stood up and corrected him instantly. Then PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee advised that parliamentarian to not get into such tussles with Mukherjee. Mukherjee, with his razor-sharp intellect, could recall victory margins including exact figures of elections held long back. He was the man, who knew what he was doing and yes, he knew too much. No wonder he was awarded the highest Indian civilian award, the Bharatratna. He received other illustrious awards too in six decades of his career in politics – Padma Vibhushan, Bangladesh Liberation war honour, Grand cross of National Order of the Ivory Coast, Grand collar of the Order of Makarios III, Honorary D.Litt from three Indian Universities, Honorary Doctorate from 7 International and National Universities, Best Finance Minister of World, by Euromoney, Finance Minister of year for Asia (Demerging Markets) and Finance Minister of the year 2010 (The Banker)
The family man
Married to Subhra Mukherjee for 48 long years, Pranab Mukherjee was blessed with three children. Every year he would make it a point to be in his ancestral home for the quintessential Bengali festival of Durga Puja. He also made it a point to meet people from his area and take care of their well-being. Once visiting his college, he was asked to sit in a special chair. On enquiring, when he came to know that it was the chair of the Principal of the college, the President of India politely refused to sit in that. Such was the humility of the man who respected knowledge so much.
The final goodbye
Delivered by the river of fate to the ocean of Indian politics, it was time to bid adieu after swimming in the political waters. On 10th of August the all engulfing COVID-19 also caught up with the statesman, Pranab Mukherjee. He was admitted to the Army’s Research and Referral hospital at New Delhi, after accidentally slipping and falling in his bathroom. On 31st of August, 2020 after battling with death, he finally gave in and breathed his last. As an ancient Sanskrit saying goes, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that, when you die, you smile and the world mourns”. This man, Pranab Mukherjee was perhaps the most apt justification of that saying.
-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at IndianFolk.com, Senior Research Fellow at IACS Kolkata)
Picture: The former President of India, the Late Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, had created his own network of friends, diplomats and officials abroad. In the picture, in his capacity as the External Affairs Minister during UPA-1, Mr. Mukherjee is seen having conversations with Illinois Governor Jim Edger in Chicago along with the Indian Consul General K.R. Sinha and the India Tribune Editor (and the current IndianFolk.com columnist) J.V. Lakshmana Rao.