Pranab Da, his politics of flexibility and ‘hardliner’ regalia 

New Delhi: At one point in 1999, after Sonia Gandhi could not become Prime Minister, Arjun Singh was sidelined if not dumped. I happened to meet Late Singh one of those days at the Teen Murti Bhavan on the sidelines of a public function; and when I quizzed him with a political question vis-a-vis Congress views on the subject; Arjun Singh clearly told me: “Why don’t you ask Pranab Mukherjee”.This was a departure.But certainly the message was clear, Pranab has again come back a clear No. 2 in the Congress party.

Of course, Pranab da could be easily described as “the man for all seasons” for the Congress leadership and the different Prime Minister(s) in office.

I would rather say, his life was a full cycle. He worked effortlessly and closely with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani, differed with Rajiv Gandhi over No. 2 debate, came back to the Congress and became No. 2 under PV Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri and again Sonia Gandhi.

In 1997 when Late Sitaram Kesri suddenly rushed to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with a letter written in English withdrawingsupport to the H D Deve Gowda government, it was natural that eyebrows were raised.

During the debate in Lok Sabha, the illustrious Chandrashekhar had said the letter deserved to be thrown into a ‘Kuda-daan(dustbin)” prompting subtle whispering that the former Prime Minister’s target was not Sitaram Kesri.Some Janata Dal leaders also mocked – “Kesri ji should not have fallen into the game set up by Brahmins”.The Mukherjees are known Brahmins in Bengal.

Many years later, Mukherjee fought with another Brahmin, P Chidambaram.

Pranab Mukherjee with the author of this article

Dr Subramanian Swamy, then a Janata Party leader, said that the office of the Finance Minister (Mukherjee) was bugged by Home Minister Chidambaram at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, UPA chairman.

“Try and dismiss it as some chewing gum being stuck. Who will stick chewing gum?,” said Dr Swamy, known for his ‘dislike’ forboth, Chidambaram and Sonia.  

The Finance ministry note sent to the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2011 suggested that Chidambaram, who was the finance minister before Mukherjee, ‘could have prevented’ the second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum allocation scam if he had insisted on the auction process.

The entire row related to Dr Swamy’s role in his affidavit before the Supreme Court. Swamy submitted the March 25, 2011finance ministry note, apparently approved by Mukherjee, stating that the telecom department could have invoked a clause of cancelling the licences had the Finance ministry (under Chidambaram) stuck the policy ofauctioning. 

Both Mukherjee and Chidambaram also reportedly clashed more than once over the decision to grant statehoodto Telangana and the process of bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.
That’s Mukherjee for you.

A veteran that he was – Pranab Mukherjee was also fond of writing. 

In his book, ‘The Dramatic Decade – The Indira Gandhi Years’ (published 2014) in the chapter ‘‘Jayaprakash Narayan’s offensive’, Mukherjee wrote about Emergency, : “…rationally speaking I could not support the movement. To me it appeared to be directionless.

It was contradictory in that it was a movement fighting against corruption yet composed of people and parties whose integrity was not above board”.

However, he acknowledged: “…there is no doubt that it brought with it some major positive changes – discipline in public life, a growing economy, controlled inflation, a reversed trade deficit for the first time”. 

Importantly, he also wrote:  “…at that time (I was a junior Minister) did not then understand its (Emergency’s) deep and far-reaching impact”.
The book ‘The Polyester Prince – The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani’ written by Hamish McDonald says, “first casualties” under Rajiv Gandhi were “key friends of Dhirubhai”.

“Rajiv sacked R K Dhawan from the Prime Minister’s Office within hours of his appointment. And in his first cabinet he replaced Pranab Mukherjee (or the other ‘PM’ in short) as Finance Minister with V P Singh, a choice that was eventually to bring down the heavens on both Dhirubhai and then Rajiv himself.”
The book further notes: “According to New Delhi’s grapevine, the old P-D-A axis (short form is mine and D stood for R K Dhawan and A for Ambani axis) responsible for Reliance’s booming fortunes is currently reorganizing its scattered forces with V P Singh, the Finance Minister (under Rajiv Gandhi – blogger), as its principal target”.

Born on December 11, 1935, his life and politics has been a true case of someone who has seen it all. He has truly seen unraveling of many chapters of Indian politics. He held key positions, – President of the Republic, Finance Minister, Defence and External Affairs Ministry charge as well.

In 2008, when the 26/11 siege took place, Mukherjee was the foreign minister of India.
In fact, Pranab had asked the then Pak foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (on visit to India) toleave India immediately saying “no purpose will be served by your continuing to stay in India in these circumstances”.Qureshi was supposed to visit Indian Women Press Corps IWPC club at 5 Windsor Place in Delhi. 

But somehow Pranab had missed ‘the Home portfolio’. During the UPA regime, Sonia Gandhi was vehemently opposed not only about depriving Prime Ministership to the Late Mukherjee, she was also categorical that Mukherjee should not become Home Minister – an office that would have given him direct control of Intelligence Bureau and other important agencies.

In 2013 at the Talkatora Indoor Stadium, Narendra Modi – then seeking a greater space in national polity – had told a BJP workers’ meeting acidly, “…..if Pranab Mukherjee had been successful as the Prime Minister then the worry of Congress was what would happen to the (Gandhi) family. So they put the country in the hands of somebody as a night watchman (in reference to Dr Manmohan Singh).” 

About the Author:

Nirendra Dev is senior Journalist. He is a longtime northeast watcher and author of books including ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’.