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NEW DELHI : It’s hard to think of a politician who has held the three most important portfolios of government—finance, defence and external affairs—led the Planning Commission, worked closely with three generations of the Gandhi family and won the unreserved respect of the political opposition in a career spanning five decades.

Yet, for all his accomplishments, organizational skills and cross-party popularity, Pranab Mukherjee, who passed away on Monday at the age of 84, could never become prime minister of India.

He may have been India’s man for all seasons, but the top job somehow eluded him—time and again.

His strongest chance may have come in 2004. As former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid noted in his autobiography, “The selection of Dr Manmohan Singh over Pranab Mukherjee (then the seniormost Congress leader) came as a surprise not only to Congress but also to outsiders."

“In retrospect, many argue the Congress might have averted the 2014 Lok Sabha election outcome (when the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, stormed to power) if the choice had been otherwise or even if we had changed horses midstream," when the Manmohan Singh-led government was mired in corruption scandals.

There was one more occasion earlier that will forever be associated with Mukherjee.

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, Mukherjee parted ways with Congress for nearly five years. The reason for his departure from Congress was his ambition—he reportedly wanted to become PM (although he later described it as a “misunderstanding"). The support of the party was with Rajiv Gandhi, and Mukherjee went on to form his own political party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. He returned only when Gandhi invited him back, finally merging his party with the Congress in 1989.

Mukherjee’s was a glittering political career that was capped, if not by the coveted prime ministership, the next best thing going—the job of President of India, in 2012.

Mukherjee not only held prized portfolios at different points in his career, but also headed several groups of ministers (GoMs) during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. In this period, Mukherjee is remembered for two stellar contributions in particular—overseeing the amendment of India’s Income Tax Act retrospectively and signing the 10-year defence partnership pact with the US.

A politician with many friends across the aisle, Mukherjee was felicitated with India’s highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna last year by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

Elizabeth Roche, Utpal Bhaskar, Pretika Khanna and Gireesh Chandra Prasad contributed to the story.

Read an unabridged version of this story on www.livemint.com

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