Pranab Mukherjee: A man who missed being the 'King', but was 'Sir' to PMs

Pranab Mukherjee
It was hot, that evening of May 22, 2004, a day before the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was to be sworn in. This was the first major tryst of the Congress with coalition politics in New Delhi. As television channels were going wild speculating about portfolios, Pranab Mukherjee was sitting quietly in his small study in his Talkatora Road residence, going through various reports on the functioning of the Union home ministry; a few friends had told him that in a few hours he would be India’s Union home minister. Kashmir had seen a terror attack and some news channels —confident that they were interviewing the next home minister — even aired some comments from Mukherjee on the attack.

 

Late in the evening, as those channels flashed the portfolios of the new ministers in Manmohan Singh’s council, against Mukherjee’s name the legend said: Defence minister. There was an air of disbelief at Talkatora Road. His close aides, under the mistaken impression that the defence ministry was a notch lower than the home ministry, were both shocked and indignant.

 

But what did the man himself do? He took 10 to 15 seconds to digest the new situation, and ordered his assistant: “Connect me to the defence secretary.”

 

Mukherjee, then the most experienced minister in the UPA, knew that slippery patches abounded in the corridors of power — and you must take what you get. Pondering over unfulfilled possibilities is a waste of time.

 

Mukherjee might have failed to become prime minister of India. But he did become President. And a Bharat Ratna. And a leader the RSS lionised. And a man to whom the Congress turned when it needed ideological clarity. And a man whom Mamata Banerjee hated to love. He was a man who — till his age and health allowed — did his own Kali puja in his village. But he never felt the need to say that he would not visit a mosque because he was a Hindu.

 

Few have held portfolios as significant as the ones he did. He was defence, foreign, and commerce minister. However, the appointment he cherished the most was finance minister, specifically in the Indira Gandhi government. His favourite leader was Indira. She taught him both administrative skills and the tactics of managing party politics.

 

Stories about that relationship are legion. Going against Indira’s advice, he contested — and lost badly — the Lok Sabha election in 1980. Indira telephoned Mukherjee a few hours after the results were out: “Everyone in this country knew that you would not win. Even your wife knew. What made you think that you could do it?” she said, and, without waiting for an answer, slammed down the phone. Two days later, Mukherjee got another call from New Delhi. This time it was Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi: “Mummy is very angry with you. But she also said that there could not be a cabinet without Pranab.”

 

Mukherjee thought he was on top of the situation when Indira was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi was in two minds about prime ministership. It is the finance minister who stands in for the prime minister, he said, when he was asked who should handle things in her absence. Rajiv was encouraged by his advisors to misunderstand this remark. Mukherjee found himself in the wilderness during the Rajiv years, so much so that a Congressman to the core, he even tried to launch a political party. Many years later, he couldn’t even recall its name.

 

While Mukherjee was finance minister, a bespectacled, shy Sikh was heading the Reserve Bank of India as governor. From then till 2004, Manmohan Singh used to call Mukherjee “Sir”. In 2004, Singh became prime minister and Mukherjee became his defence minister. A courteous Singh didn’t stop calling him “Sir”. Mukherjee had to persuade him to drop the appellation. Top Congress sources say that at a Core Committee meeting of the party, Mukherjee told Singh that he would have to stop attending these meetings if the PM continued to refer to him as “Sir”.

 

When P V Narasimha Rao was prime minister, he was advised once to shunt Mukherjee out. A group of jealous senior leaders gave a long note to Rao that he should immediately make Mukherjee governor in Uttar Pradesh. This would more or less have ended the Bengal leader’s political career. Rao heard them with patience. Then gave his verdict: “Already most of our voters have fled to Mulayam Singh Yadav. If Pranab becomes governor, hearing his Hindi accent, the rest will also run away.” In many ways, his reinstatement in the Congress — and political endorsement — came with Rao’s prime ministership. He gradually built on this.

 

Mukherjee was chairman of the Congress manifesto and campaign committee before the 2004 elections. His interventions suggested his worldview. He emphasised the need for clarity on disinvestment and committed the party firmly against the privatisation of profitable public sector units. He said the Congress needed to emphasise issues such as incentives for increasing domestic savings and import substitution. “These words may be relics of an outdated era. But they continue to have a great deal of relevance in the current economic scenario,” he said in his paper that formed the basis of the party’s economic manifesto. He also told colleagues that they needed to abandon the idea that the state could continue indefinite subsidies. “In 1978-79, we had a net revenue surplus, which is no longer the case. Although India’s financial position is much healthier now than it was in 1991, we do have a revenue deficit. So we have to reorder our priorities,” he said in the paper. Importantly, he also argued for targeted subsidies, especially food subsidies.

 

Mukherjee took charge of the economy, again, in troubled times in January 2009, two months after his predecessor P Chidambaram was moved to the home ministry following the Mumbai massacre. It was the time of the global financial crisis. The government had already announced duty cuts to stem the slide. As finance minister, Mukherjee announced further measures such as a service duty cut by 2 percentage points. After averaging 9 per cent economic growth in the preceding three years, it had come down to 6.7 per cent in 2008-09. The economy in fact responded to the stimulus as the economy grew 8.4 per cent in 2009-10 (old series).

 

However, Mukherjee could not control inflation. It remained high for three years during his stint (2009-12). Besides, the stimulus was not withdrawn in time, leading to high fiscal deficits. Mukherjee is infamous for bringing in the retrospective amendments to the Income Tax Act to tax Vodafone for its overseas deal to acquire Hutchison Essar. The negative impact of the amendments lasted many years as investors turned wary of investing in India.

 

There was much about Mukherjee that made him an attractive mascot for the BJP. His worldview — that India is indivisible, there are no nationalities or self-determination issues in this country and those who question the state must be crushed — is what brought Mukherjee close to Modi. Ironically, Mukherjee himself derived this from Indira.

 

The man who was bestowed the Bharat Ratna turned down all mercy petitions during his tenure as president. In 2016 he summoned the finance minister over the insurance Ordinance, which the NDA government was chasing as its first big-ticket reform move. He discussed the fine print of the Land Acquisition Bill with the government a few months later. When the government sent the contentious enemy property Ordinance (as the Bill on the issue was stuck in a parliamentary committee), Mukherjee summoned his team of legal experts and asked the government for a clarification. It was all done with complete cordiality. Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited him almost every week and sat with him virtually the entire day when he lost his wife.

 

During his childhood in a village in Birbhum district, the role of the 'king' during the puja dramas was always reserved for Mukherjee, though there was no shortage of contenders. In the long political drama later in life, he missed out on the king's role narrowly, but made sure the kings or the queens couldn't do without him.


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