Pranab Mukherjee: People’s president

By Jayant Ghoshal

Aug 31, 2020

New Delhi: About Pranab Mukherjee, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh once told me that he was like Dhrupad Sangeet. If you don’t understand Dhrupad or if your ears are not trained to listen to Dhrupad, then it will be difficult for you to enjoy the music.

The analogy with Dhrupad gives the impression that Mukherjee, senior Congress leader and former President was a dreary person, who stayed a thousand hands away from so-called modern gadgets, modern lifestyle, late night parties and instead remained engrossed in politics and reading — a person from whom people might have heard, when they went to him, about Congress politics before Indira Gandhi.

It also happened, when someone went to his place, that he would narrate details of the first Congress session and explain how, from there, the party got transformed. So many times listening to his references from 1956 and 1962, many would think that he was a dreary person. I am absolutely in agreement with Jairam Ramesh, that to understand this captivating persona one needs to understand him as a person.

Pranab Mukherjee had a long political career and began his journey with Ajoy Mukherjee’s Bangla Congress. In 1969, he became a member of Rajya Sabha as the representative of the Bangla Congress. Later, he caught Indira Gandhi’s eye. How this happened is a famous story, recounting which seems relevant today.

In 1969, Indira Gandhi was on the verge of nationalizing banks and Morarji Desai was removed as Finance Minister, for which one of the reasons was that he was planting the seeds of the syndicate that would go against Indira Gandhi — his vision and ideology was Rightwing and he was against the nationalization of banks.

Indira Gandhi understood the importance of state-owned corporations and nationalization of banks and wanted to move ahead with it. It was during that time, one late evening when the Rajya Sabha was nearly empty and Indira Gandhi was present because the Quorum could not be completed that she heard Pranab Mukherjee’s speech in the House.

In his speech he noted why it was necessary to nationalize banks, contradicting those who opposed it saying that according to Article 19 of the Constitution, Right to Property was a Fundamental Right and banks being private property, their nationalization would be interpreted as intervening in the rights of the people. Mukherjee mentioned that in London, when (nineteenth century) Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel was discussing the abolition of slavery in Britain, those opposed to it gave an explanation of the same sort — claiming it was a fundamental right and, therefore, could in no way be abolished. Mukherjee said that these opponents of the abolition of slavery ultimately lost and the reason for this was that with time things change, hence a Fundamental Right was also correlative in democracy and it was unjustified to consider it a permanent notion and move towards undemocratic backwardness. India was also going through economic transformation and hence we need to free ourselves from the primitive idea of private property and bring in changes like nationalization of banks, he noted in his speech. In much the same way that, in spite of much opposition by John Locke and John Stuart Mill in the House of Commons, the Bill to continue with slavery was not passed, similarly the privatization of banks could not happen.

This explanation of connecting slavery with the nationalization of banks was extraordinary. Listening to it, Indira Gandhi was surprised and impressed at the same time. She asked Om Mehta, then the party’s chief whip, about the young man who had delivered the brilliant speech. Om Mehta found out about Mukherjee and told her about him as also did the veteran Communist leader Bhupesh Gupta, who was close to her

Since then Pranab Mukherjee was under the benign eye of Indira Gandhi and gradually became her favourite. What happened following the merger of the Bangla Congress with the Congress is now history. He became very close to Indira Gandhi. Since then he was omnipresent in the Congress party, be it the era of P.V. Narasimha Rao or of Manmohan Singh. Although he left the Congress when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, it was a decision that he came to regret, saying it was a grave mistake. When we got into journalism in 1984, he had formed the Rashtriya Samajwadi Party. I would travel with him to the Election Commission and saw his dire situation. Not many people attended the meetings, yet he fought his best. Later on, even Rajiv Gandhi realised his mistake and in the Tripura Legislative Assembly he involved Pranab Mukherjee and brought him back into the party.

Unfortunately, Rajiv Gandhi passed away. I’ve heard that he had planned on making Mukherjee the Finance Minister. He had made him the chief of the economic cell of AICC. But Mukherjee’s luck did not favour him at the time. After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Mukherjee became the crisis manager in the tumultuous politics of the time in order to protect Indian democracy. I met Mukherjee in 1984. I met him through Amiya Dutta, president of the District Congress, who joined Mukherjee’s party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. Back then he would be on tour with Mukherjee, who I finally met at his apartment in Southern Avenue. He was on his divan and that was my first meeting with him.

After that, I have travelled with him to quite a number of places in India or abroad. Today I feel one thing that I saw when he was President, holding a major constitutional post as head of state — that all his life he had carried on with the anguish that he knew he had the capability to be Prime Minister. When he joined the government of Manmohan Singh he was not very excited about it. The day Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, he was thinking about his role in government because at first there was a discussion regarding giving him the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Later on, that got altered and he was given the Defence Ministry. He understood that somewhere there was a trust deficit with the Gandhi family, which did not end till the last day. He was number two to Indira Gandhi. Howsoever effective he might have been, it was difficult for him to be acquiescent to any other leader. He had worked with many other leaders, like Sitaram Kesri. He would tell me that whoever held the post, he respected the chair.

Let me share a funny incident. Once, I went to Pranab Mukherjee’s room and I was standing because he was going through a file and didn’t look up. I was standing as he hadn’t asked me to sit. Looking up, he saw me and said, “Why don’t you sit down? Sit down please!” Then, he narrated a story he said he remembered when he saw me standing. When he was Deputy Minister in the Finance Ministry, the Finance Secretary was elder to him. It so happened that once he entered the room and Mukherjee failed to notice him and he kept standing. On being asked, the bureaucrat told him, “I might be senior to you in age but you’re the minister and I am your secretary and according to the Constitutional protocol I must abide by it. I will only sit if you ask me to.” Then, jokingly sharing the story with me, he said, “You’re no bureaucrat, you’re a journalist, then why are you abiding by all these protocols?” Everytime I spoke to him, I would come away enriched by stories from the past and many such anecdotes.

Today, on the sudden demise of Pranab Mukherjee, many memories are coming back. He had incredible distinguishing aspects about himself. Many are aware of him being a foodie. As much as he loved food he used to fast as well. He would fast on various occasions and performed the Chandi Path. It so happened that Sonia Gandhi got to know about the Chandi Path — unless it was really an emergency, he would never take calls before 10 am for this. I am not sure in Indian politics if it would have been possible for anyone barring Pranab Mukherjee to chant the entire Chandi Path in Parliament.

I knew about Kamalapati Tripathi and Pranab Mukherjee was practically his disciple. Congress is a secular party but the party abided by Hindu culture and hence many used to say that Pranab Mukherjee was maintaining the tradition of Hindu Brahmin since Rajendra Prasad, yet was not communal. He had maintained the trait of Kamalapati Tripathi, which Congress never really paid much heed to.

However, as a Bengali, in no way was he ever seen as a Hindu Brahmin. Although while dealing with the BJP’s Hindutva, Pranab Mukherjee’s characteristics were composite in nature and involved unity amongst the diversity in religion including Hindus, Muslims. He always represented India’s variety and diversity. I’ve said this about Pranab Mukherjee: that his individuality is of consensus making.

He was never really a confrontationist. He was known as the Chanakya of Indian politics because he was a great negotiator, manipulator and everything which was necessary for politics he had them all. I remember, when Manmohan Singh had raised the cry of financial liberalism, Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister and was going ahead with economic reforms. At this time, during the assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh, N.T Rama Rao started to give out rice at Rs 2 per kg and the populist measure helped him to become Chief Minister. As for Rao, in spite of being a Telegu scholar, he lost in his own state to NTR.

Manmohan Singh and his economic reforms were blamed for the loss. It was said that the hard reforms affected the poor people. Pranab Mukherjee was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee a midway was proposed, that is economic reforms but with a human face. Rao had faith in Manmohan Singh’s policy and so was the case with Pranab Mukherjee but he suggested a way that would serve the purpose without chaos. This is one of the characteristics of Pranab Mukherjee. He was always the crisis manager, he brought people out of conflict and found a midway.

He was not born with a golden spoon in his mouth. His father was a freedom fighter, a Congress leader. But he made it. He held the highest constitutional position in India. It is very difficult to find someone like him. With experience, he had enriched himself but not with familial exposure. We christened him the Chanakya of Indian politics. In Bengal, from Subhas Chandra Bose to Chittaranjan Das, an anti Delhi politics was evident. Pranab Mukherjee, a Bengali, instead of doing anti Delhi politics became the key Bengali in national politics. I keep saying that the way Pranab Mukherjee had made it, nobody else had.

On July 25, 2012, Pranab Mukherjee stepped into Rashtrapati Bhavan as the thirteenth President. Of all the leaders who have been President, he was the only one who became President with so much experience — as in, he was Foreign Minister twice, Commerce Minister, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, member of the Congress Working Committee, to name some posts he held. Actually, apart from the Prime Ministership, there was hardly any important post that he did not hold. If it is asked, how was he as President, then I would say India had two kinds of Presidents: Zail Singh, who while in Rashtrapati Bhavan wanted to prepare the blueprint for the plot against Rajiv Gandhi which he failed. On the other hand was the most obedient President, Pratibha Patil, who never showed signs of disagreement.

Pranab Mukherjee was somewhere in between. He told me that, “In the Constitution, a President’s post is full of splendour but as a titular head, abiding by the Constitution, whatever the Cabinet decides, a President has to follow. If a dispute arises regarding any Bill, a President may look at it to review it but if the Bill comes back, the President has to sign it anyway. If I cannot change in spite of showing disapproval, so what is the use of any kind of protest.” To highlight the thoughts of the President, some of the presidents can do such via the news media.

But Pranab Mukherjee did not want to do that. By studying the British system and the role of the Queen in relation to the Cabinet, he saw that the President had a creative role as well even as he followed the Constitution. He took the middle path, that is whenever he had any objection he used to state it to the Prime Minister over the phone. The Prime Minister would come and explain and a discussion would take place. For example, he signed the Bill on capital punishment because he believed that even as one observed human rights, there could be capital punishment. He decided in favour of capital punishment although he was criticized for this. But in case of issuance of ordinances by avoiding Parliament, he had his objections. But instead of going to the news media, he informed the Prime Minister. In many cases, the Prime Minister had agreed with the objections. He visited Israel. He wished to visit Palestine as well, which was not part of the original time-table.

Since we were never anti Palestine, the Modi government had spoken with the Israel government and there was no objection from their end either. Post Arafat, new dimensions have opened between Israel and Palestine and according to his wishes, the tour and time-table and itinerary were prepared and Mukherjee visited Palestine. Hence as president he had taken up an active role without complaint or dissatisfaction. This is how our Pranab Babu was. Pranab Mukherjee means unity, a crisis manager throughout his extensive political career from 1969 to date and he had always given primacy to the voice of democracy and unity.IANS