India almost had a Prime Minister from West Bengal, but didn’t when the Left in an incident which is part of history now, scuttled the veteran CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu’s chance of being crowned the leader of the largest democracy in the world. But now West Bengal has a President, a man whom they can call their own. However much we talk of being Indian as our identity, the fact is that there is some amount of regionalism in all of us. And for precisely this reason every Bengali today must be proud to see the man of the moment, Pranab Mukherjee, occupy the top post of the country. Just like every Bengali will always be proud of the fact that Sourav Ganguly went on to become the captain of the Indian cricket team.
When Pranab was declared UPA’s candidate for the presidential elections, he was visibly happy and thanked everyone including Sonia Gandhi for the honour. One can safely say that with the veteran politician having made it clear that he was not contesting the next General Elections, this was probably the next best thing that could happen to him. The man who could not be the Prime Minister of the country and who had been the quintessential number two in his party for most his life can now leave public life in the sunset of his political career on a high note by becoming the First Citizen of the country.
In the run up to his nomination, Pranab had been giving feelers that he was ready for the transition from an active politician to the serene environment of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He talked of the ‘lawns’ and the ‘library’ of the most famous address in Delhi and how he was keeping his fingers crossed when he said that you don’t get something ‘just by dreaming’. It is said that five years back also the Bengali Brahmin had expressed his desire to shift to Raisina Hill, but he was too valuable to the party to be allowed to do so.
This time around too, it almost did not happen for him because of another Bengali, Mamata Banerjee. The incumbent Vice President Hamid Ansari was one of the two names that Sonia Gandhi had in mind. And Mamata’s opposition to Pranab is well known. It would not have been easy for the former finance minister if Mamata had supported the candidature of Ansari. Sonia would have probably relented to the West Bebgal Chief Minister’s demands. But with Mamata making a public spectacle of the whole issue, rejecting Sonia’s choices and naming her own candidate, probably sealed the decision in favour of the veteran politician.
What is striking about Pranab is that after more than four decades in public life, the Opposition had no ammunition against him after he was declared UPA’s choice for President. Inspite of Team Anna making some noise about him being involved in some corruption cases, it has been more or less an easy ride for Pranab to Raisina Hill. Once when Sonia Gandhi announced his name, most of the allies and the Opposition came on board. Whereas, NDA partner JD(U) saw no merit in opposing him, one of the bitter critics of the Congress Shiv Sena too toed the line a little too easily. This support was not for Congress but for Pranab and only Pranab. Maybe if political compulsions and the necessity to put up a fight had not been there, the main Opposition, the BJP would also have happily supported the man. Remember, not too long ago senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha was all praises for Pranab and spoke eloquently about him in Parliament.
However, the last hat that Pranab wore – the finance minister of the country – did earn him a fair amount of criticism. He quit the ministry at a time when the country is reeling under a financial crisis, falling growth rate, high inflation, price rise, diminishing foreign investment and devalued rupee. The man has been accused of not taking decisions on a host of economic issues confronting the country and contributing to the image of policy paralysis. His last budget too did not really earn him much praise. Infact, the business class is said to have been happy to see Pranab Mukherjee vacate the North Bloc and Manmohan Singh take over the job. But to be fair to the man, P Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh too held the portfolio before him and ought to be blamed as much. He is also leaving active politics at a time when his party is fighting a perception battle on corruption like never before.
No one will deny the fact that Pranab Mukherjee has been a staunch loyalist of the Congress and its ideology and the leader (even though he once floated his own political outfit). He has been a relentless crusader for the Congress in UPA’s rule at the Centre, bailing the government out countless times out, both in Parliament and outside. The nuclear deal in UPA-1 when he was instrumental in bringing Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav on board to vote for the government, the more recent Lokpal Bill or confabulations with Anna Hazare – he has been in the thick of most of the deadlocks. Most of us cannot forget two occasions that we witnessed when Pranab’s oratory skills and his persuasive power were displayed to the hilt in front of the whole country – rising in defence of the UPA against a no-confidence motion and his addressing the Lok Sabha on the Lokpal Bill.
There must have been times when he must have felt disappointed and dejected but he did not give up. Like the time when he was apparently ‘asked’ to make a public appearance before the media with P Chidambaram and clarify that all was well amongst them. The issue was a contentious 2G note of the finance ministry indicating somewhat Chidambaram’s collusion in the scam. Pranab was held responsible for the leak to the media which he denied. It angered him no end. One could almost felt his discomfiture on camera.
Also there were times in the recent past when Pranab was virtually asked to be everywhere at all the times. As he was the man who commanded respect across party lines, he was the man more often than not talking and pacifying Opposition and allies’ alike on various contentious issues. Though there were times when one would flinch to see him lending a hand at everything. Like when he was sent to the airport at Delhi to meet Baba Ramdev along with other Cabinet ministers to convince him not to undertake the fast at Ramlila Maidan, many thought it did not befit Pranab considering his stature. Nonetheless, he was not the man to complain at least not publicly.
In 2004, when Sonia Gandhi nominated Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress party, Pranab accepted her decision with poise. It does not require much intelligence to guess that Pranab may have thought that his time had finally come but it was not to be. (Ironically, it was Pranab who as finance minister in the cabinet of Indira Gandhi had made Manmohan Singh the Reserve Bank Governor.) Though the man himself has never said that he aspired to be the Prime Minister of the India, some members of his family have lamented the fact in the media that he was given a raw deal by the Congress.
It is said that the first family of the Congress party never forgets those who aspire for more than they should and who do not adhere to the high-command culture. It is also said that Pranab Mukherjee was not forgiven for suggesting in a way after the assassination of Indira Gandhi that he was the most qualified and the next in line to succeed her. This was almost akin to rebellion, especially when her son Rajiv Gandhi had already joined politics and was the most obvious choice to be appointed the PM. One cannot blame Pranab if the thought came to his mind – after all Rajiv was novice in politics, but then maybe Pranab Babu forgot for a moment that Indira’s son had a Gandhi as surname.
The Rajiv-era was probably the most difficult years for Pranab when he was marginalised in the party, lost his Cabinet berth and was sent to Calcutta to take over the Pradesh Congress Committee. Things got so bad that he was expelled from the party when he joined hands with the anti-Rajiv group in the Congress. It is said that Rajiv’s coterie was responsible for most of what was happening to Pranab. After all a new group had emerged as the new power brokers in the party and the Indira loyalists were no longer seen as needed. His humiliation was complete when his house in Delhi was raided by Income Tax authorities.
Later on he did float his own party, Rashtriya Samajbadi Congress which fared terribly in the 1987 Assembly polls in West Bengal. It is said that reality bites and Pranab too realised that Congress party was his only comfort zone. He wanted to re-enter the party and Rajiv, who had by then lost the 1989 General Elections and had been embroiled in the Bofors scandal, subsequently gave his nod. Maybe both found comfort in each other and realised their mistakes, as Rajiv had also been ditched by some of his so called coterie.
There have been quite a few political stalwarts from West Bengal like Bidhan Chandra Roy, Siddhartha Shankar Roy, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury and the Marxist leader and former chief minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu. They were tall leaders in their own respect but in the pages of history books Pranab will most likely be chronicled as scaling greater heights then them and having made a stronger impact on national politics. Pranab’s moment of national limelight came when Siddhartha Shankar Roy parted ways with Indira. When she returned to power in 1980 Pranab was made the finance minister two years later and incidentally is India’s longest serving finance minster.
Nonetheless, he has not always had it easy. Initially he was ridiculed many a times for having benefitted from Indira’s trust and for being perennial Rajya Sabha member and not being a mass leader. This and being called an outsider in Bengal must have hurt him no end. (Infact very recently Mamata Banerjee while opposing his candidature for president had called him a “man of the world’ but not of Bengal.) No wonder everyone saw an emotional Pranab with tears in his eyes when he finally won a Lok Sabha elections in 2004 from Jangipur constituency in Murshidabad, a Left bastion. He is quoted as having said – “From now on no one will call me a rootless wanderer, an alien in his homeland. For me this is a dream come true.” He had earlier fought and lost from Malda and Bolpur. The man who had excelled as a minister and an administrator all his life with aplomb, wanted deep in his heart, to be given a thumbs up by the common man.
Whatever write ups, books and articles that one reads about Pranab, one thing that strikingly comes across as common is his amazing intelligence and his astounding memory. It is said that he remembers everything that he reads and can even quote the notings on his files that he made years ago. Also he is said to have been bestowed with the rare capacity to work for hours without a break. His fondness for morning walks and reading is also well known, though he is also known for his short temper which all of us at times have seen in Parliament during debates and at times while talking to the media.
Also well known is Pranab Mukherjee’s religious side and his God-fearing nature. Every year without fail the illustrious son of Bengal returns to his small village in Birbhum district during Pujas to perform the rituals and pay obeisance to Ma Durga. This time around when he will return to his native land for the annual event, things will be slightly different – he will return as the thirteenth President of the Republic of India and the first Bengali to have become one. And being proud of the fact that he has left behind a legacy in Indian politics, which will be difficult to emulate in times to come.