Pranab Mukherjee, even though out of active politics after he demitted the office of the President of India in 2018, remained the quintessential politician, so much so that just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, reports had started circulating that he was busy confabulating to put in place a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front, which had TMC leader Mamta Banerjee, BJD leader Naveen Patnaik and TRS leader K Chandrasekhar Rao as key players. Often described as the 'Best Prime Minister India never had" the consummate politician that he was, Pranab Mukherjee was the 'go to' man in the Congress party for much of UPA years for any crisis management, owing to his uncanny shrewdness and vast experience. Whether it was managing the fall-out and war of perception following the Anna Hazare movement, or getting the controversial Indo-US Nuclear deal signed and operationalised, Pranab Da, as he was fondly called by one and all, was the chief negotiator at all stages.
During the NDA rule of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's days, Pranab Da was the man we journalists would turn to for decoding the Opposition strategy in Parliament or Congress party's response to various issues being debated. More than his briefings, it was his debriefing sessions (an euphemism for talking off the record) with us which would yield more interesting stories. No wonder, he used to be hugely popular with journalists.
Having started his political career as a Rajya Sabha member of Bangla Congress, a breakaway Congress faction which eventually merged with the Congress party, Pranab Da earned the confidence of Indira Gandhi and served as junior minister in various key ministries, till he got his big break as union finance minister in 1982. He had become so important in the Indira cabinet that when she used to travel, he used to preside over the cabinet meetings. However, after Indira Gandhi's assassination, his fortunes plummeted. Rajiv Gandhi, who never trusted him, dropped him from his cabinet.
Pranab Da has written about this in his book The Turbulent Years 1980-1996, "I kept waiting for the call. Being dropped from Rajiv's Cabinet was not even peripherally in my mind. I had heard no rumours.......When I learnt of my ouster from the Cabinet, I was shell-shocked and flabbergasted. I could not believe it." His bad days continued during Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership. In 1986, he was dropped from the Congress Working Committee, as well. Pranab Da had once confided in a candid debriefing session with reporters that this was a blow which hurt even more than being dropped from the cabinet. In the same year he was also expelled from the party for six years, after he gave an interview to The Illustrated Weekly of India. He often wondered on the reasons for this mutual distrust between himself and Rajiv Gandhi, saying there was actually no reason for it.
Mukherjee finally returned to the Congress party in 1988 and reclaimed his position when P V Narasimha Rao became the prime minister in 1991. He was appointed the deputy chairman of Planning Commission. His exile from the cabinet ended in 1993 when he returned to the union cabinet as minister of commerce. In 1995, he took over as minister of external affairs.
Thereafter, Pranab Mukherjee had become such an important figure in the party that when Sonia Gandhi decided not to become prime minister in 2004, Mukherjee's name emerged as the frontrunner. This was also because he had contested the Lok Sabha election for the first time in 2004 and won. Mukherjee himself was optimistic of this outcome.
In his book The Coalition Years 1995-2012, he has admitted this saying, "The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for prime minister after Sonia Gandhi declined." Even though he was not selected as prime minister, his stature in the party remained high. But when the rumours started making the round that he would not join the government under Dr Manmohan Singh, who had worked under him in earlier years, he was summoned by Sonia Gandhi, who told him that his not joining the government would make it weak. He has written about this in his book as well. "I was reluctant to join the government, and informed Sonia Gandhi accordingly. She, however, insisted that I should join the government since I would be vital to its functioning, and also be of support to Dr Singh. As it turned out, Dr Singh would talk to me on all important issues and seemed to depend on me," he writes in his book.
From then onwards, till he became the 13th President of India in 2012, Pranab Da was the chief negotiator, chief arbitrator, chief crisis manager of the government as well as the Congress party. He handled important portfolios like defence, external affairs, and finance, initiating major changes in all these sectors. As external affairs minister, he was instrumental in negotiating and getting operationalised the controversial Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal. As defence minister he ensured enhanced budget for the defence sector and as finance minister he brought in the retrospective amendments in the Income Tax Act.
When UPA II was being rocked by the Anna Hazare movement, and the government seemed clueless about managing the situation, it was again Pranab Da who managed the crisis for the government. He not only brought the agitationists to the negotiating table and chaired the drafting committee of the Lok Pal bill, he personally ensured that the Lok Pal bill reached a logical conclusion vis-à-vis the NGOs/civil society activists, unmindful of the criticism some hurled at him within the Congress party, blaming him for outsourcing the process of drafting a legislation to a handful of street protesters. He, however, justified this by saying " this was an experiment of democracy in action."
The true parliamentarian and democrat that he was, Pranab Da firmly believed in the process of engagement, even with those who held a diagonally different world view. It was this democratic urge which made him accept an invite to attend the RSS meet at Nagpur on June 7, 2018. Something which made many Congressmen squirm. Even his daughter Sharmishta Mukherjee urged him not to go, saying in a tweet that this was the dirty tricks department of the BJP at work and eventually what will remain will be his visuals at the meet and fake stories/fake quotes attributed it to him. He however, remained firm and addressed the RSS meet where he talked of "Nation, Nationhood and Patriotism".
Once there, he, tongue-firmly in-cheek, reminded the Swayamsevaks what Nehru had to say on nationalism. He quoted Nehru, " I am convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other groups in India. That does not mean extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook to which other matters are subordinated."
At a time when the concept of unity in diversity seems to be getting blurred, he reminded the swayamsevaks that " the soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance… secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation." In an environment today where dissent from the ruling dispensation has come to be seen as sedition, he did not mince words when he told the RSS that "no one can deny the prevalence of multiplicity of opinions."
At a time in 2018 when instances of mob-lynching had become disturbingly frequent, he told the RSS, "Manifestations of rage are tearing our social fabric ….we must free our public discourse from all forms of violence, physical as well as verbal." In a true statesman-like guidance, quoting Kautilya, he advised them, "State is for the people. People are at the centre of all activities and nothing should be done to divide the people and create animosity amongst them."
Words so well spoken which will serve to guide generations of future rulers, irrespective of the dispensation. Leaders like Pranab Da, who say it like it is, who can call a spade a spade, are rare to find these days.