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Pranab Mukherjee, veteran Congressman who wanted to be PM but ended up President, dies at 84

A vital cog in UPA wheel, quintessential Congressman Pranab Mukherjee's 5-decade-long eventful political career ended on a high note with his election as President in 2012.

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New Delhi: Former President Pranab Mukherjee died at the Army’s Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi Monday. He was 84.

Mukherjee had undergone a brain surgery at the hospital earlier this month and had been on ventilator support since. He had tested positive for Covid-19 prior to the surgery.

His son, Abhijit Mukherjee, announced the news.

“With a Heavy Heart , this is to inform you that my father Shri #PranabMukherjee has just passed away inspite of the best efforts of Doctors of RR Hospital & prayers, duas & prarthanas from people throughout India,” he posted.

The former President is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Mukherjee had reportedly suffered injuries on the forehead and temple after a fall in the bathroom on 9 August. He was brought to the Army R&R Hospital the next morning where a CT scan suggested a clot in his brain. He underwent a “lifesaving emergency surgery” to remove it, according to the hospital.

While the surgery was stated to have been successful, he had remained in a “critical” state and on ventilator support since. His condition deteriorated Monday, with the hospital saying he has suffered a “septic shock” due to his lung infection.

Mukherjee’s over five-decade-long political career culminated on a high note in 2012, when he was appointed the 13th President of India.

But the run-up to Mukherjee’s nomination was all but smooth. He was not the first choice of UPA president Sonia Gandhi, who wanted Hamid Ansari for the post. But regional parties including Samajwadi Party managed to prevail. It also went on to show Mukherjee’s popularity across the political divide.

Until the time he became the President, the tag of being a permanent ‘PM-in-waiting’ remained stuck with Mukherjee. He had been the second-in-command to three prime ministers. He has also written about his expectation to be PM in his memoir, The Coalition Years — 1996 – 2012.

“I met Sonia Gandhi on the evening of 2 June 2012. We reviewed party positions on the presidential election, and discussed probable candidates and the possibility of garnering the required support for those candidates. During the course of this discussion, she told me frankly, ‘Pranabji, you are most eminently suited for the office, but you should not forget the crucial role you are playing in the functioning of the government. Could you suggest a substitute?’ ‘Madam,’ I said, ‘I am a party-man. Throughout my life, I have acted as per the advice of the leadership. Therefore, whatever be the responsibility given to me, I will discharge it with all the sincerity at my command.’ She appreciated my stance. The meeting ended, and I returned with a vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister,” he wrote in the book.

The only time Mukherjee came close to stand in for the PM was when then Manmohan Singh underwent a heart bypass surgery in 2009. But even at that time the Congress did not officially made him in-charge in Singh’s absence. Instruction issued at that time merely said Mukherjee will be handling the finance portfolio in Singh’s absence.

Though Mukherjee always remained the second-in-command, he was by far one of the most powerful ministers and influential politicians in the Congress. He was the member of Congress Working Committee, the apex decision making body for the grand old party, for 23 years and had friends cutting across party lines. Within the Congress, he was famous for his consensus-building ability.

Initial years

An Indira Gandhi find, Mukherjee entered politics in 1969. Impressed with his political prowess, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had helped him get elected to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket that year. The man from the small Mirati village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district was a quick learner. He found his way into the Indira cabinet in 1973, during her second term as the Prime Minister. He was a deputy minister and Minster of State (Finance) in 1973-74 in the Indira government.

Mukherjee became one of India’s youngest finance ministers when he was appointed to the post in 1982, at the age of 47.

One of Indira Gandhi’s most trusted political lieutenants, he proved to be the quintessential party man with a razor-sharp memory and a good grasp over political and policy issues. But he lacked a mass base as a politician.

Though Mukherjee had been part of an elected government for several terms, it was only in 2004 that he won a Lok Sabha election for the first time — from Jangipur in West Bengal.

It’s not that he did not try his hand in elections earlier. Much against the wishes of mentor Indira, Mukherjee had contested the 1980 Lok Sabha election and lost. Upset with the loss, he was sitting in his Kolkata home when he received a call from the then PM, and she told him that he will be part of her cabinet.


Also read: India is not a small nation belonging to a particular group of people: Pranab Mukherjee


Parting ways with the Congress

Mukherjee, however, fell out of favour after Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Rumours that he was eyeing her PM seat created a rift between him and Gandhi’s son Rajiv, who became the PM in 1984 riding on a massive sympathy wave.

But even Mukherjee was not ready for the ignominy that followed. Rajiv Gandhi dropped him from his cabinet. In the second volume of his memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, Mukherjee had narrated how he felt after being dropped.

“When I learnt of my ouster from the Cabinet, I was shell— shocked and flabbergasted. I could not believe it. But I composed myself, and sat alongside my wife as she watched the swearing—in ceremony on television. As soon as it concluded, I wrote to the Ministry of Urban Development asking to be allotted a smaller house in place of my 2 Jantar Mantar residence (a ministerial bungalow), pointing out that I had ceased to be a minister—this was something I had done in 1977, too. I then went off on a holiday with my family who had long suffered my neglect.”

Completely sidelined in the party and the government, Mukherjee left the Congress to float his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. But the parting was short-lived. Five years later, in 1989, he merged his party with the Congress.

His rehabilitation in the party was complete during then PM P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term. Rao first made him the chairman of the Planning Commission (1991 to 1996). Mukherjee then handled the commerce and then the external affairs portfolio for a year.

Mukherjee was not only an quintessential Congressman, but he was a vital cog in the UPA wheel. What made Mukherjee, a member of the Congress Working Committee for 23 years, stand out was his influence both within and outside the Congress. During the signing of the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement in October 2008, he played a crucial role in garnering support for the government.

In his memoir, Mukherjee had called the clinching of the deal as “one of the most satisfying achievement of my tenure as the minister of external affairs”.

His knowledge of government matters, complex policy issues and mastery over numbers made him the go-to man during any crisis in the government. Known for his sharp memory, Mukherjee would during meetings quote figures from past five-year plans and other government data, leaving his colleagues at a loss for words.

Mukherjee had a knack for finance. He was appointed finance minister for the first time in 1982 by Indira Gandhi. He held the finance portfolio again between 2009 and 2012. But he was more left of centre in his approach.

Mukherjee was one of the most powerful ministers in the UPA government till his name was nominated for the President’s post. Between 2004 and 2012, Mukherjee headed close to 90 groups of ministers with a mandate to decide on important policy matters.

Among his ministerial colleagues, Mukherjee’s differences with P. Chidambaram used to be the talk of the town. Mukherjee himself admitted that the differences were on account of their “differing perspectives on the economy”.


Also read: When Narendra Modi called Pranab Mukherjee to ask if he would accept the Bharat Ratna


Pranab Mukherjee as President 

His five years of presidential tenure is mostly remembered for the steps he initiated to make Rashtrapati Bhawan accessible to commoners. Mukherjee started the “in-residency” programme where artists, writers, students and innovators were allowed to stay at the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan for a week and indulge in their creative passion.

It was also during his tenure as President that mercy petitions of terror convicts Ajmal Kasab, Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon were rejected.

Mukherjee continued with the practice of celebrating Durga Puja every year at his ancestral home in Birbhum, even after he became the President. He would participate in the ceremony, doing the puja himself.

Once fond of good Bengali food, Mukherjee had become a frugal eater in his later years. After his tenure ended in 2017, Mukherjee spent most of his time reading books and listening to music. Always an avid reader, he remained one till the very end.

Five years ago, in August 2015, Mukherjee lost his wife Suvra Mukherjee who died at the same Army hospital after a cardiac arrest.

Their elder son Abhijit Mukherjee and daughter Sharmistha are now both Congress leaders.

A politician at heart, Mukherjee continued to make headlines even when he was no longer the President. In June 2018, Mukherjee’s decision to accept an invitation from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to address swayamsevaks in Nagpur on nationalism generated much controversy. Several Congress leaders, including daughter Sharmistha, had asked him to reconsider his decision but Mukherjee did not budge.

He enjoyed a good rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi too. After Modi became the PM for the first time in 2014, he called Mukherjee a “father figure” and said the latter “handheld him through the maze of national governance”.

He was awarded the Bharat Ratna by the Modi government in 2019.

The history buff who was a strict disciplinarian till the end, Mukherjee has left a legacy in Indian polity that could prove to be difficult to fill.


Also read: ‘Democracy thrives on listening…’ — full text of Pranab Mukherjee speech at Sen lecture


 

  • The report has been updated to reflect the fact that Abhijit Mukherjee is not the sitting MP from Jangipur.

 

 

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The writer is unaware that Congress President was indeed in favour of Pranabda,but some senior members of class23 raised objection earlier and even in 2012 . For RSS cum BJP, he was merely a shoulder to shoot Nehru Gandhi family. By releasing major portion of Netaji classified papers and Bharat Ratna was a ploy to capture votes in Bengal which didn’t work fully in Bengal election

  2. It was shocking to know how a half literate foreign born woman decided who would be the PM of this country. No wonder Indians were invaded and ruled by so many foreigners.

  3. Rest in peace. A truly remarkable career. There is a point where an SLBM breaks the ocean’s surface and then its rocket ignites. That was the moment we were in Calcutta and could observe the beginning of the rise and rise of Pranabda.

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