As he entered his eightieth year in December 2014, and almost midway through his presidential term, Pranab Mukherjee got his sense of timing right again. He began publishing his reflections on over four decades in public life.
“A boy who moved from a flickering lamp in a remote village in West Bengal to the glittering chandeliers of India’s capital” is how he described himself in The Dramatic Decade, the first book in the trilogy of his memoirs. The Turbulent Years would be published while he was still in Rashtrapati Bhavan and The Coalition Years three months after his term had ended in 2017.
It was a measure of his presence and influence in the corridors of power that the account of his long career could also be read as an insider’s view of the shifting sands of Indian politics.
Five years earlier, in the twilight of his life, he had reconciled with the reality that he would never be the Congress party’s candidate for prime minister. So, he signed off active politics to become the country’s thirteenth president. And over two decades before that, a similar adjustment had paved his return to the capital’s power elite. In the end, it was the political instinct of cautious recalibration that proved far more useful to him than the brief spells of anxious, even adventurous, response.
Born in 1935 at Mirat, a village in what is now Bengal’s Birbhum, Pranab Mukherjee was introduced to public life early. His father, Kamada Mukherjee, actively participated in the independence movement and went on to represent the Congress in the West Bengal Legislative Council from 1952 to 1964.
After completing his early education in Birbhum, Pranab Da, as he was fondly called, earned a master’s in political science and history from Calcutta University and supplemented it with a degree in law. As a young man, he tried middle-class professions in Kolkata – a clerk in the Post and Telegraph department, a journalist with the Bengali publication Desher Dak, a political science teacher at the Vidyanagar College. It was in politics, however, that he found his calling.
His political management skills came to wide attention when he successfully anchored VK Krishna Menon’s Lok Sabha byelection campaign in Midnapore in 1969. Indira Gandhi’s Congress spotted him as a resource to be used in Delhi and gave him a Rajya Sabha seat, which he would hold on for five terms until 2004.
In the early 1970s, Pranab Da’s role as a key aide to Indira grew and so did his stature within the party. His position as a minister of industrial development didn’t explain his growing stature. What did was that Indira found him valuable for two reasons.
First, as her confidence grew after wresting control of the splintered Congress and her popularity as a national leader soared with the liberation of East Pakistan after the 1971 war, she needed trusted aides and political managers more than leaders with popular bases. A sense developed that her popularity was enough to cover for the lack of mass appeal of her close loyalists and even the new protégé. In a phase when her dependence on bureaucrats such as P N Haksar was widely known, Pranab Da was instrumental in creating a pool of her political aides.
Second, his competence in understanding constitutional provisions, parliamentary procedures, and drafting notes was seen as an asset.
In spite of its vagaries, the 70s ensured a larger role for Pranab Da in any future power establishment led by the Congress. In his memoirs, he calls it the “dramatic decade”, listing the 1971 war, the events leading up to and following the declaration of the Emergency in 1975, and the emergence of coalition politics with the rise of the Janata Party as the “epochal events” of the period.
Pranab Da’s discomfiture or otherwise with apparently authoritarian measures was unknown, but the Shah commission appointed by the Janata Party government did question his role in the excesses of the Emergency. He emerged unhurt, though, as the commission itself lost credibility in the face of allegations of exceeding its brief. He certainly reaped the reward for standing firmly with India after her electoral setback in 1977. By the time she returned as prime minister in 1980, Pranab Da had risen to be the party’s leader in the Rajya Sabha. A few years into Indira’s new regime, he found himself elevated as the finance minister, in which role he helped India repay its IMF loan.
In his memoirs, he would mark this phase as the beginning of India’s “turbulent years’’ that lasted until the mid-90s. Pranab Da attributed the turbulence to the change in Indira’s style of governance, the tragic loss of her son, Sanjay Gandhi, in 1980, and that Indian politics had changed quite a lot since her last previous in power.
After Indira’s assassination in 1984, Pranab Da couldn’t sustain the momentum of his rise. Any possibility he had of succeeding Indira disappeared when the Congress handed over its leadership to her son, Rajiv Gandhi.
Two factors worked against Pranab Da. First, Rajiv had his own coterie, the Babalog brigade of schoolmates and sundry camp followers. Second, the perception gained ground that Pranab Da was siding with a section of the Congress that was unhappy with Rajiv’s leadership.
Then, Rajiv won a landslide victory in the 1984 parliamentary election and consolidated his hold on the party. He instantly dropped Pranab Da from the central ministry and sent him to head the Congress in Bengal. By 1986, Pranab Da could not take his marginalisation any more and floated his party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress.
But his lack of mass appeal proved to be his party’s undoing and it was routed in the 1987 Assembly election. This led to a moment of stock-taking of his career and the important realisation that, in the power play of democratic politics, even the most skilled backroom operator can’t replace a leader with popular support.
Pranab Da let his party merge with the Congress in 1989, but the loss of the Congress in that year’s parliamentary election ensured that he couldn’t be rehabilitated in Delhi’s power structure. Two years later, Rajiv was assassinated and a new political dispensation came into being in Delhi. P V Narasimha Rao led the Congress back to power, and brought Pranab Da back into the reckoning, making him deputy chairman of the now-defunct Planning Commission and, later, India’s foreign minister.
After the Congress was voted out in 1996, Pranab Da focused on helping the Gandhis wrest back the control of the party from the growing ambitions of leaders such as Sitaram Kesari, its then chief. In doing so, he not only won back the Gandhi family’s confidence, he made himself vital to the political strategy of Sonia Gandhi, who had witnessed the value her mother-in-law placed in him but also the rather mixed record of misgivings and reconciliation with her late husband.
After Sonia took control of the Congress in 1998, Pranab Da was reinstated in the party’s top rung as a general secretary. As a key party strategist, he was reluctant to embrace the idea of coalitions and alliances, even though he describes this phase of Indian politics as the years of coalition. In the Coalition Years, he recalls that when the Congress decided on alliance-building as a strategy to defeat the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, he was “the lone voice stating a contrarian view as I believed that sharing a platform or power with other parties would undermine our identity”.
In some ways, his reluctance was rooted in an absorptive, though old, idea of the party, what political scientist Rajni Kothari describes as the “Congress system”. It was the idea of a Congress that could assimilate and represent diverse interests and ideologies. But that era was gone; the party could no longer do so as Pranab Da would realise.
In 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress, took power and Sonia refused to be the prime minister, Pranab Da expected to be the party’s choice for the post. Indeed, in his book, he alludes to the support he had in the party to get the job. Sonia had different ideas, however, and Pranab Da quickly made peace with being the number two in the government, led by Manmohan Singh. One of his less noticed but important moments in 2004 was his win from the Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency in Bengal. It was satisfying for him to enter the parliament by winning the popular vote. Until then, he had only been in the Rajya Sabha. He retained the seat in 2009, and later his son, Abhijit Mukherjee, represented the constituency until 2019.
In the five years of UPA-1 and three years of UPA-2 before he left for Rashtrapati Bhavan, he served as the minister for defence, finance and external affairs. Moreover, he headed as many as 97 Groups of Ministers.
In spite of being denied his preferred home ministry, the UPA years were when he enjoyed the most power in his political career. According to his account, he was closely consulted on every important and strategic matter by the Congress president as well as the prime minister. Political observers could see that he had an easy relationship with the party president – mutual respect built on his role as the responsible party patriarch and troubleshooter and her leadership of the party rooted in the legacy of the Gandhi family.
Two years after deciding to end his innings as a career politician and move to Rashtrapati Bhavan, he witnessed one of the most defining moments of the last three decades in Indian politics. In 2014, the BJP became the first party since 1984 to win a clear majority. In the tradition of the non-partisan office of the president, Pranab Da struck up a smooth relationship with the new prime minister, Narendra Modi. The rapport was borne out of mutual respect: Pranab Da praised Modi for his “”, while Modi regarded Pranab Da as a “” and guide as well as a statesman. A definite testimony to this appreciation came in January 2019 when the Modi government chose to confer Bharat Ratna on Pranab Da.
After completing his tenure, Pranab Da found himself unfettered by the constraints of office and his past association with the Congress. He chose to engage with the ideas and institutions which he thought were crucial in India’s social, cultural and the political life. Unmoved by attempts at dissuasion by a few Congress leaders, including his daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee, he accepted the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s invitation to attend its annual valedictory function at its Nagpur headquarters in 2018.
In the last days of his life, Pranab Da longed for his native place. He asked his son Abhijit from their village. Abhijit went to Mirati and brough jackfruit to Delhi. “He had some jackfruit. He was so happy,” Abhijit remembered.
In what could be seen as a measure of his longevity in and grasp of the vagaries of Indian politics and intricacies of governance, Pranab Da’s was a sought-after address for political education. Admirers of his elephantine political memory were as diverse as Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi.
However, besides the slice of good fortune that he admitted in his reaction to receiving Bharat Ratna, his success in public life showed how a blend of restraint with a sense of timing can be the political virtue of the silently ambitious. After all, Pranab Da gave a sense of organising even the political life into compartments, in which each had a time. After getting jackfruit from his village, he seemed happy enough with the last of those compartments.