How Pranab Mukherjee Narrowly Missed Being The Prime Minister, Twice?

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by Ashok Bhan

He used to take sometimes my assistance on Kashmir situation when he was external affairs minister. It was Pranab Da who recommended my name to Prime Minister for inclusion in the Parliamentary delegation to UNSC in 2008 as an expert.

Bharat Ratna Shri Pranab Mukherjee was a man of deep culture. He was a veteran Congressman and the most astute, competent, upright and accomplished politician. He narrowly missed being the Prime Minister on at least two occasions, but finally rose to be the first citizen of the country.

President Of India: Mr Pranab Mukherjee

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker from a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi.”
Pranab Mukherjee

Astute, perceptive and equally well versed with the nature of Indian politics, Pranab Da, as he was called by his well-wishers and adversaries, was consulted by every single politician including the current Prime Minister on issues of national importance.

His grasp over the political affairs was widely recognised and he played a major role when the Congress split for the second time in 1978. He was made the treasurer of Congress (I).

Although, in 1980, he unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election, yet he was inducted into the Union Cabinet as the Commerce Minister and given the additional charge of Steels and Mine.

No 2 In Congress

Pranab Da, by his competence, came very close to the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi and she first appointed him as the Finance Minister and later made him the convener of an informal group which advised her on political affairs. Other members of the four-member group were R  Venkataraman, Narasimha Rao and ND Tewari with Makhan Lal Fotedar being present as Indira Gandhi’s representative at the meetings. Decisions regarding whom to appoint or replace were taken by this Committee on Political Affairs.

Abdul Rashid Hafiz receiving award from President, Pranab Mukherjee.

It is a well-known fact that whenever Indira Gandhi travelled abroad, it was Pranab Da who presided over the Cabinet meetings, thus he was the undeclared number two in the government. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, it was presumed by Pranab Da that he would succeed her. In fact, his insistence on being the Prime Minister in the aircraft which was bringing back Rajiv Gandhi to the capital created a misunderstanding that led to his leaving the party for a few years. However, he returned back and Narsimha Rao recognising his political and professional acumen made him the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.

Pranab Mukherjee played a major role in assisting Sonia Gandhi to take over as the Congress president in March 1998 along with Arjun Singh and ML Fotedar, he formulated most party strategies.

Missed Again

At the Shimla conclave in 2003 where Sonia Gandhi gave a call to opposition parties sharing certain common beliefs of the Congress, Pranab Da drafted the political resolution with inputs from others. In 2004 when the UPA came to power, he was sure that he may be chosen as the Prime Minister, but Sonia Gandhi opted for Manmohan Singh.

Zufa Iqbal receiving award from President Pranab Mukherji in 2016

In 2006 CMs’ conclave in Nainital, it was virtually certain that Pranab would be designated as the Deputy Prime Minister. But again, Sonia Gandhi shot down the move. However, the dependency of the government on him was complete and he headed countless groups of ministers to address complex problems; at one time, he was head of 103 committees. In 2010, it became clear to him, that he has lost in the power game, within the party, to be the PM.

The President

From then onwards, he started planning to be the next President of the Republic and in 2012, when the opportune time arrived, he upstaged Sonia Gandhi, who wanted Hamid Ansari to be elected as the next head of State. She was compelled to accept him as the party nominee.

Pranab Da was a consensus builder and reached across to opponents in other parties to bring them on board. As the President, he received respect from Narendra Modi, who on several occasions, praised him publicly. His visit to the RSS Headquarters was criticised by some Congressmen. But for Pranab Da, it was a mission, he took in pursuance of his inclusive style of politics. It was not surprising that the NDA government conferred the Bharat Ratna on him. He was indeed a rare type of politician.

Teacher’s Son

Son of a school teacher, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, the district president of the Birbhum Congress, Pranab did his political apprenticeship under Sushil Dhara. His father was rated very highly by the legendary Bengal CM, Dr BC Roy Mukherjee senior was close to Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee who headed the Bangla Congress-led government in Bengal in the late sixties. The CM wanted senior Mukherjee to be sent to the lone Rajya Sabha seat in 1968-69, but the father recommended Pranab’s name. Once in Parliament, he made his mark and his father’s multiple friends such as Atulya Ghosh, etc, helped him in understanding the political craft at the highest level.

The national flag flying half-mast on the civil secretariat building in Srinagar as a mark of tribute to the former President Pranab Mukherjee who passed away on Monday in Delhi after a prolonged illness. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. This plurality came with the assimilation of ideas over centuries Secularism is a matter of faith for us. Every time a child or woman or human rights of citizens are violated, the soul of India is wounded.” 
Pranab Mukherjee

There is an interesting anecdote which Pranab Da narrated to some of his friends regarding a by-election in the late sixties in West Bengal. VK Krishna Menon, who was defeated from Bombay in 1967, was contesting as an Independent, backed by the Bangla Congress from Midnapore. Menon had the habit of making long speeches on international affairs, which made no sense to the rural citizens of the constituency. Pranab, who was appointed as an interpreter to Menon, comprehended the problem without losing any time. As soon as Menon would wax eloquent about some international subject, Pranab would, while translating, raise a local matter that had relevance to the people but nothing to do with Menon’s speech. Each time Pranab spoke, the audience would applaud, which Menon would mistake to be an appreciation for him since he did not understand the language. Thus, Pranab Da helped Menon to return to the Lok Sabha.

My Association

Ashok Bhan

I had a good personal relationship and special regards for Pranab Da as he used to take sometimes my assistance on Kashmir situation when he was external affairs minister. It was Pranab Da who recommended my name to Prime Minister for inclusion in the Parliamentary delegation to UNSC in 2008 as an expert since I was not a parliamentarian. He asked me to stay put in the US until President Obama takes the oath. It was a transit phase in the US and I was tasked along with a group of MPs to brief the US officials on our country’s point of view on various issues including Kashmir.

Pranab Mukherjee was a living encyclopaedia who could recall even the minutest detail of meetings that had happened more than 50 years ago. He had a short temper, but would not take time in cooling down either. He brought both dignity and grace to the presidency. He was a statesman, who shall be remembered for a long, long time.

(A senior Supreme Court lawyer, Ashok Bhan is Chairman of Kashmir Policy and Strategic Group. Views are personal.)

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