The varied talents of Mukherjee, 84, who passed away on Monday, were well demonstrated during his career spanning over six decades. He was a cerebral politician with an astute institutional understanding and a grip on working the government, key ministries, Parliament, Constitution and the political system.
His clinical grasp of the intricate functioning of Congress, active participation in its never-ending clashes of ideas and personalities and conspiracies, helped him emerge as a natural coalition manager and a flourishing survivor in the slippery inner corridors.
Having thrived in the heydays of one-party rule, Mukherjee’s shift from being the chief theorist of Congress’ 1998 Panchmari Declaration — “coalition politics is a passing phase and we will come back again” — to post-2003 ‘Shimla Sankalp’ to emerge as chief coalition counsellor in UPA bore testimony to his ‘khiladi’ record. Yet, the veteran was thrilled as a teenager on his first date when he finally shed the Rajya Sabha tag and won his first Lok Sabha election in 2004 from West Bengal’s Jangipur.
A short temper, a phenomenal memory and an automated ‘namaskar’ were all features of Brand Mukherjee. He had no pretensions of an angel but embraced the exhilaration and ignominy of power politics with aplomb. Mukherjee was among the pioneers who laid the road linking Political Delhi with Corporate Mumbai. Yet, the perennially demanding reforms gallery loathed Finance Minister Mukherjee’s middle path. He, in turn, delivered a parting shot in his swansong budget of 2012 with ‘retrospective tax’. Later, he rubbed it in with a query: “Despite the angst that my proposal generated, I wonder why every succeeding FM in the past five years maintained the same stance.”
The dyed-in-the-wool Cong-ressman and unabashed ‘Indiraite’ remained embedded in India’s pluralist, secular and democratic moorings but abhorred politics of exclusion, secular exhibitionism and the one-way street on communal sensitivity. The saffron gallery stirred with excitement and his ex-colleagues teetered nervously when the high priest of Congress visited the RSS headquarters on its invitation after retiring from his presidency. Once he came out of the ‘Nagpur vyuh’ after delivering a speech underlining his unwavering and long-cherished ideals, a relieved AICC held a late-evening news conference to hail him “for turning the mirror on the RSS”, though some still rue his visit.
Mukherjee joined Congress via Bangla Congress in 1970 and scaled heights before he was 50 when Indira Gandhi even made him her virtual No. 2 in the Union Cabinet, superseding veterans including PV Narasimha Rao and R Venkataraman, who later became PM and President, respectively. His status in the last Indira Cabinet became a burden on Mukherjee after her assassination. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dropped him from the Cabinet, CWC, Congress Parliamentary Board and expelled him from the party after his Doon School advisors, especially Arun Nehru, injected suspicion in the politically raw PM that Mukherjee had prime ministerial ambitions and was plotting against him.
Receiving Bharat Ratna in 2019
As Rajiv Gandhi’s regime started sinking following the Bofors row and his favourites crossed over to the opposition, he brought back Mukherjee (and RK Dhawan) into Congress. “Many things said about them, I found, were not true,” Rajiv Gandhi said in an interview. “All I can say is that he (Gandhi) made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience,” wrote Mukherjee in his memoirs.
Perhaps due to that uneasy past, Sonia Gandhi’s leadership was never fully at ease with Mukherjee. Ironically, it was Mukherjee who helped CWC innovatively interpret aclause in the Congress constitution to sack Sitaram Kesri and make Sonia Gandhi the party president overnight.
Though he was not part of her coterie, Mukherjee in no time became indispensable to the UPA regime by leveraging his multi-tasking skills.
Sonia Gandhi denied Mukherjee the prime ministership twice, the second time in 2004, when as party president she nominated technocrat-turned politician Manmohan Singh as PM. Thirteen years earlier, as Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, she proposed the ‘safer’ Shankar Dayal Sharma, and when he declined, PV Narasimha Rao as PM, over Mukherjee and challenger Sharad Pawar. Mukherjee recorded his sense of denial in his memoirs.
Narrating his meeting with Sonia Gandhi, Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad, after she turned down the PM post, Mukherjee’s memoirs said: “She (Sonia) told me she did not want to be the reason for a sharp division in society because of her elevation to the post of the prime minister… Finally, it was left to her to choose the PM… Within the Congress, the consensus was that incumbent must be a political leader with experience in party affairs, administration… she (Sonia) named Dr Manmohan Singh as her choice and he accepted.
The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. This expectation was possibly based on the fact I had extensive experience in government, while Singh’s vast experience was as a civil servant with five years as a reformist finance minister.”
Five years later, when PM Singh underwent a heart surgery ahead of 2009 LS polls, the Congress leadership did not appoint an acting PM but made sure Mukherjee, though senior-most, shared Singh’s duties with colleague AK Antony. Manmohan Singh publicly said after his 10-year stint: “In 2004, Soniaji chose me to be the Prime Minister.
Pranabji was the most distinguished colleague that I had. He had every reason to feel a grievance, that he was better qualified than I was to become the PM. But, he also knew I had no choice in the matter.” Mukherjee was also denied the Congress presidentship once. In his memoir, Mukherjee hinted at an undisclosed pressure on his friend Rao to not (initially) include him in the Union Cabinet in 1991 and in choosing Kesri as party chief when Rao quit in 1996. Mukherjee was also denied the post of President of India in 2007. He recorded in detail how Sonia Gandhi told him he could not be spared of his crucial role in the UPA government ahead of the 2007 and 2012 presidential polls, but his determination prevailed the second time.
Mukherjee eventually levelled the scale on his terms after becoming the much-applauded sheet anchor of the UPA regimes. He deftly planned and executed his entry into Rashtrapati Bhavan by making his candidature a fait accompli for the Congress leadership. He capped his career with a Bharat Ratna, conferred by a government opposed to his ‘ism’ but felt obliged by his presidential guidance which also relished the fact the medal would bruise a certain ego.
The way he made himself indispensable to Sonia Gandhi, flourished in the UPA and finally walked away with the best possible medals without her patronage makes him the ‘parallel protagonist’ of Congress. The fact Mukherjee left on his terms, while Sonia’s original loyalists ML Fotedar, Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh were humiliated and abandoned serves as a warning on perils of blind loyalty to the current crop of Congressmen. As tension grows in Congress — amid deepening unease between seniors and Team Rahul-Priyanka, unabated political and organisational drift in leadership and the Gandhi family name losing electoral sheen — the Mukherjee template may come in handy for at least some of the leaders.