Home / News / India /  Pranab Mukherjee: The Citizen President who could not become the people’s Prime Minister

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 six 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 the Congress but also to outsiders."

“In retrospect, many argue that 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 Prime Minister. But the support of the party was with Rajiv Gandhi. Mukherjee went on to form his own political party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. He returned when Rajiv Gandhi invited him back and merged 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 he also headed several Groups of Ministers (GoMs) during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. Mukherjee is remembered for overseeing the amendment of India’s Income Tax Act retrospectively and signing the 10-year defence partnership pact with the US during this time.

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.

Those who knew him closely, recall him as someone who found allies across the political spectrum, a quality that helped him sail through the election for President in 2012 where he defeated former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma. He remained in office till July 2017.

“Sangma was a senior tribal leader and one of the parties we were reaching out for support to Mukherjee’s candidature was Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which was naturally in a dilemma. During the campaign period when I was Jharkhand in-charge of Congress, Mukherjee called me in the wee hours one night and requested if I could urgently fly to Ranchi. He got the feelers that JMM could support him only if Congress publicly approached them before Sangma did. I met JMM leaders the next day and the rest is history," former union minister Shakeel Ahmad, who worked with Mukherjee in the council of ministers of UPA-1 and in the party for several years, told Mint.

Ahmad added that Mukherjee was “one of the sharpest minds" in the government and a voracious reader. “Each time when someone would go to him with problems, he would give them three to four options and tell them the consequences to each. It was almost like a practice, whether in his ministry, GoM or in the party."

Mukherjee’s political journey started in 1969 when he was handpicked by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi and given an opportunity to become Member of Parliament (MP) in Rajya Sabha. Although he was new to public life, his father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee had been a freedom fighter associated with the Congress party.

Within four years of entering public life, the big moment for Mukherjee came in 1973 when he was made deputy minister of Industrial Development in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. He stood by Indira Gandhi when the Congress imposed emergency in the country in 1975 and then rose to become finance minister in 1982 when she returned to power after the general elections of 1980.

Within 10 years of entering politics, Mukherjee had become the most important Congress leader outside of the Gandhi family. The mercurial rise continued through the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was made deputy leader of Congress in Rajya Sabha in 1979 and leader of the house in 1980.

“I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi," Mukherjee had succinctly described his life during his address on becoming President of India.

It was not always easy-going for Mukherjee.

“Whatever he has achieved, he did it on his own merit. He came at a national level after being a grassroots politician, so he had certain ambitions in life. He wanted to be prime minister of the country and actually four times there was a chance but it could not fructify," said Gautam Lahiri, senior journalist and author of a book tracing Mukherjee’s political journey.

“He was always in the top-level politicians but somehow he could not earn the 100% trust of leadership. There was some kind of mistrust about his ambition and particularly there was a fear that he is the man that could topple Gandhi family. So one can say it was palace politics where he was utilized by every leader but he never could gain that kind of trust," Lahiri added.

Mukherjee’s political fortunes improved in the nineties and he was made chairman of the Planning Commission in 1991 and became foreign minister in the P.V. Narsimha Rao government in 1995. A loyalist, Mukherjee was instrumental in convincing Sonia Gandhi to take control of the party and played a key role in stitching together an alliance for Congress which eventually defeated former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 2004.

While many believed that Sonia Gandhi would choose Mukherjee as the prime minister, he again lost the chance to party loyalist Manmohan Singh. It was ironic that Singh was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) when Mukherjee was finance minister and now he would have to serve under Singh in his cabinet.

“His ambitions made him a thinking politician who maintained cordial relations with everyone. He was not a public leader and was instead a master strategist. The only agony of his public life was that he could not become the prime minister. He was so aware of what he wanted that he said this himself -- that he could not become the prime minister because he did not speak Hindi," Lahiri added.

In the 10 years of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Mukherjee remained the most important political leader.

One key decision made by the finance ministry during Mukherjee’s leadership that made global headlines was amending India’s Income Tax Act retrospectively to tame multinational companies that get into offshore share transactions to buy Indian companies without having to pay capital gains tax here.

That was a crucial decision in India’s fight against tax avoidance by MNCs. In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that Vodafone Group Plc’s $11 billion offshore deal acquiring Hutchison Essar Ltd.—later renamed Vodafone India Ltd—was not taxable in India. In the Finance Act that year, Mukherjee sought to amend the law to clarify that such deals have always been taxable in Indian even if executed overseas. The tax dispute eventually went into international arbitration.

Again, it was Mukherjee who as defence minister in 2005 signed the 10-year defence partnership pact with then US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld during a visit to the US, changing the trajectory of India-US defence ties. The pact allowed for defence trade to take off between the two countries – unheard of in the decades prior to that -- and laid the basis for technology collaboration. As external affairs minister, Mukherjee spearheaded India’s campaign against Pakistan and terrorism after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

He was considered the chief troubleshooter for the UPA government.

A devout Hindu but strongly secular, Mukherjee was famous for his photographic memory and quick temper. A quintessential Bengali bhadralok, he was the press corps’ delight at Durga Puja celebrations that he held in his ancestral village in West Bengal, where he was at peace with his surroundings.

Mukherjee’s wife Suvra Mukherjee passed away in 2015. His political legacy in Congress continues with his daughter Sharmishta Mukherjee who is a senior Delhi leader and Abhijit Mukherjee, a Lok Sabha MP. His third child is Indrajit Mukherjee.

(Elizabeth Roche, Utpal Bhaskar, Pretika Khanna & Gireesh Chandra Prasad contributed to the story)

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