The perfect all rounder who could not become captain!

Ajay Vaishnav and Rohit Joshi/Zee Research Group

For some one being in the thick of things for more than four decades, his decision to enter the hallowed precincts of Rashtrapati Bhawan actually marks the descent into retirement of one of the most active politicians of contemporary India.

While the 77-year old got a rare public acknowledgement of his services both from the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) where Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said Pranab Mukherjee would be deeply missed, it is not that everything has gone as per the script for the finance minister.

Clearly he has not been the most obvious choice for President at 10 Janpath since Sonia had for more than one name up her sleeves. As for UPA, public allergy on display for him by fellow Bengali Mamata Banerjee might have as much to do with his own poor chemistry with her as with the ever changing UPA arithmetic.

The script has also turned awry since Mukherjee’s exit from North Block is privately seen by many as a relief rather than a pain. Given his inability to arrest the slide in the economy and most importantly his throw back to socialist era, the corporate world is plagued by the fear of unmitigated discretionary powers vested in the hands of bureaucracy.

But to be fair to him the slide in the economy is not all of his own doing while the move to rein in tax defaulting transnational companies is a move that has its obvious strengths. It is therefore not about his latest stint as finance minister but about the exit of the most trusted politician all rounder having moved out without being getting a shot at the captaincy role, many say he so well deserved.

Popular as Pranab Da across the political spectrum, Mukherjee’s resignation terminates an almost 50-year association– right from Kolkata’s college days to the last stint at the finance ministry – with the grand old party of India. All this while, Mukherjee had donned various roles in the party and Congress governments holding as diverse portfolios as defence, foreign affairs, and finance.

In fact, his first major ministerial stint came in 1982 to 1985 when he served as the country’s finance minister. During his term in office, which was also the height of licence raj, Mukherjee took various pro-consumer decisions and policies to attract NRIs to invest in their country.

For instance, he hiked interest rates on five year post office deposits and recurring deposit from 10.5 to 11.5 per cent, allowing subscriber to hold accounts in PPF scheme beyond 15 years. Likewise, NRIs were being allowed to invest in any company up to 40 percent of the capital issued by it.

Even though Pranab Da got directly elected only twice, most of his parliamentary stints being from Rajya Sabha, his political acumen and penchant for understanding politics remains unparalleled. Not surprisingly, he remained the top-most troubleshooter and crisis manager for the Congress.

Until he had put in his papers, Mukherjee was heading as many as 12 empowered groups of ministers in the UPA government. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he was virtually the de facto head of the UPA-II. It is not often to have such talent amidst the many contradictions and complexities involved in the India story.

Indeed, during his second (current) tenure as finance minister, the India story seems to have lost the momentum. Here, he failed to push reforms which could have boosted investor confidence in the economy. But did he have the clear mandate to do so when UPA itself has remained highly divided on doing anything bold?

While his successor will have tough time dealing with India’s economic woes and populist pressures in the rundown to the 2014 General Elections, Mukherjee’s stellar performance as an all rounder without any peer should ideally be the serious study of all aspiring politicians including Rahul Gandhi who has now a clean opportunity to be his own man rather than just another dynasty child.

(With inputs from Pankaj Sharma and Siddharth Tak)