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Pranab’s passing removes a slice of living political history from our public life

Pranab Mukherjee nearly became Prime Minister twice.

Once in his own mind. And once, in real life before fate intervened against him.


That the first time should have been in 1984 and the second time in 2009 tells us something about how long a political career this remarkable man had. And about how much time he spent near the very pinnacle of our political system.


   Pranab Mukherjee was an extraordinary politician, capable of feats of memory that could outpace computers. On nearly every subject he dealt with, from Finance to Foreign Policy to Parliamentary procedure, he was an expert. He was capable of gentle humanity and great humility. And yet he was short-tempered, could be unnecessarily stubborn and often lost his shirt needlessly.


   Mukherjee’s first great period in the limelight occurred during Indira Gandhi’s second innings from 1980 to 1984. He had been a minister before but it was only during her second stint as Prime Minister that Mrs Gandhi came to value his advice and his acute intelligence. He rose quickly to become the man she respected most in her Cabinet, was generally regarded as number two to her and even managed the cabinet when she was out of the country.


   This led to his first abortive brush with the Prime Ministership. There are many stories about what happened that day in 1984 but I will go with the one that Mukherjee himself told me when we found ourselves sitting next to each other on a flight from Delhi to Calcutta in the late 1980s, during a period when his career was in a rare eclipse.


   When Indira Gandhi was shot on October 31, 1984, Mukherjee was in Calcutta. So, by some coincidence was Rajiv Gandhi. A special flight was organized to take Rajiv, Mukherjee and various others back to Delhi. At that stage all anyone knew was that the Prime Minister had been shot and that doctors at AIIMS were struggling to save her life.


   According to Mukherjee, Rajiv and his entourage sat some distance from him on the plane while he sat alone in his seat and worried about the health of his mentor. Rajiv was then called into the cockpit and when he returned, he announced to the cabin, “She is no more.”


   Rajiv managed to keep his composure but Mukherjee burst into tears, his loud sobs audible to the whole plane. When he had stopped crying, Mukherjee realized that order had to be maintained; there had to be continuity in governance.


   He went to the cockpit, and sent a message through the pilot’s radio that the three service chiefs were to come to the airport to meet him along with the Cabinet Secretary. His motive, he told me, was purely practical. The Prime Minister had been assassinated. Pranab was number two in the Cabinet. It was his job to hold the fort till the succession was sorted out. There were precedents in history. Gulzarilal Nanda had twice functioned as a stop gap after the deaths of Jawahar Lal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.


   In retrospect, Mukherjee said, his pragmatic action nearly cost him his political future. Rajiv and his aides noticed that the officials had all turned up at the airport to take orders from Mukherjee and began to wonder if Pranab was getting ready to take over.


   Mukherjee was already on bad terms with the Rajiv gang (chiefly with Arun Nehru) so he knew what this portended. He was not included in the small emergency cabinet Rajiv formed right after he was sworn in and after Rajiv’s landslide victory that winter, Mukherjee was told that there was no need for him in Delhi. He was sent to Bengal, later sacked from his post there and eventually even tried forming a party of his own.


"No politician can complain about ending his career as President. But somehow, I think Pranab would have preferred to be Prime Minister."

   Then, four years later, after Rajiv had fallen out with most members of his gang, he rediscovered Pranab Mukherjee (whom he called ‘PKM’) and put him to work at evolving an economic strategy for the Congress. Had Rajiv lived to become Prime Minister in 1991, Pranab, not Manmohan Singh, would have become Finance Minister.


   The shadow of Manmohan Singh was to haunt Mukherjee for the rest of his political life. When Pranab had been Finance Minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, Manmohan Singh had been Governor of the Reserve Bank, a much lesser job. But in the Narasimha Rao government, it was Manmohan who guided economic policy and became a public hero as the father of liberalization. Pranab (who knew Narasimha Rao from the Indira Gandhi 1980-4 cabinet) got good jobs --- including Foreign Minister --- but he never achieved the kind of media stardom that was Manmohan Singh’s prerogative.


   When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, Pranab was back in his cabinet as a senior minister but as one who reported to Manmohan. It could have been an awkward relationship but both men made an effort to ensure it worked.


   I once asked Pranab if it did not feel strange to report to a man who had once reported to him. It would have been strange, he replied, except for the courtesy and decency shown to him by Manmohan Singh who always publicly valued his opinion.


   That made him feel so comfortable that he never remembered that there had been a significant change in the pecking order. Plus, he laughed, he wasn’t sure how good a Prime Minister he would have been anyway. He tended to lose his temper too easily, he joked.


   Pranab’s relationship with Manmohan Singh came under strain during the last years of UPA I when Manmohan Singh argued that it was worth letting the government collapse if the Indo-US nuclear deal was not passed. The problem was that the Left opposed the deal and threatened to withdraw support if it went through.


   Pranab saw the Left’s point. The Congress had not gone to the polls on the basis of a nuclear deal. When a common agenda had been agreed on at the time when the Left agreed to support the government, this had never been mentioned. Why should Manmohan Singh take the Left’s support for granted now? Why should he act as though he had been betrayed by the Left?


   When the 2009 election was called, the general expectation was that the best that the Congress could expect was to hold on to the seats it had won in 2004. That meant it could only come to power if it got the Left to support it. Not only would the Left not support a government headed by Manmohan Singh, it was doubtful that Manmohan Singh would agree to be Prime Minister again if he had to rely on the support of the Left.


   The best case scenario for the Congress was that it would form the government but that Pranab Mukherjee, not Manmohan would be Prime Minister and that the Left would support this government. Manmohan would become an elder statesman and possibly, President of India, once the office fell vacant.


   Against the odds, however, the Congress did substantially better in 2009 than it had in 2004. It no longer needed the Left and Manmohan Singh continued as Prime Minister. Ironically, it was Pranab who later became President of India.


   No politician can complain about ending his career as President. But somehow, I think Pranab would have preferred to be Prime Minister. And God knows, he would have done a far better job of running UPA II than Manmohan Singh who made an almighty mess of things.


   His passing removes a slice of living political history from our public life. Who else was there who could tell you how Indira Gandhi took her decisions and compare her style to Sonia Gandhi’s because he had worked closely with both of them?


   He was one of our most competent politicians with a career that spanned two centuries. It is a pity— for him and for India— that he never got to be Prime Minister.


   Till the end, he remained PKM. It should have been PM.



Posted On: 01 Sep 2020 11:38 AM
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