Pranab Mukherjee remained an eternal number-two under all the prime ministers whom he served as a minister. His rise in politics was swift. Barely months after then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spotted his political talent in the run up to a Lok Sabha bypoll in West Bengal, Pranab Mukherjee got his first stint as the Rajya Sabha in 1969.
In another four years, Pranab Mukherjee was a minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet. During Emergency, which Pranab Mukherjee credited in his book — The Dramatic Decade, The Indira Gandhi Years — to the advice tendered by West Bengal Chief Minister Siddharth Shankar Ray to Indira Gandhi, he was MoS Finance and a key member of the cabinet.
Pranab Mukherjee enjoyed the confidence of Indira Gandhi so much that he not only rose to be the cabinet-rank finance minister but assumed the number-two position in the government. This is how he had the first failed brush with prime ministership.
THE FIRST CHANCE, MISSED AND RUED
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Pranab Mukherjee was in Kolkata (then called Calcutta), and so did Rajiv Gandhi, her son. They were at a public meeting, when Pranab Mukherjee got the information about Indira Gandhi being attacked.
In his book, ‘The turbulent years: 1980-1996’, Pranab Mukherjee gives details about their journey to Delhi. He wrote that after taking off from Kolkata, Rajiv Gandhi went into the cockpit and announced on return: “She is no more.” Pranab Mukherjee was the natural contender to the PMO given that he was the senior-most member. He cited precedence in his book.
“I cited precedents from the time when Prime Minister Nehru and, later, Shastri passed away while in office (27 May 1964 and 11 January 1966, respectively). In both instances, an interim government was formed with Gulzari Lal Nanda, the senior-most minister, as the interim prime minister,” Pranab Mukherjee wrote in the book.
Pranab Mukherjee next to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at an All India Congress Committee Session in Calcutta in 1983. (Photo: Raghu Rai/India Today)
This view was in sync with general understanding of political observers of the time. This was not a time when the Gandhis in the Congress had acquired an undisputed claim to leadership in the party or the government led by the party.
Many agreed that Pranab Mukherjee was natural choice for the prime ministerial post after assassination of Indira Gandhi. To them, however, his visible ambition soured his relation with Rajiv Gandhi, who dropped him first from the cabinet and then the party.
Pranab Mukherjee, on his part, dismissed this assertion in his book. According to him, the leaders on the Kolkata-Delhi flight — Balram Jakhar, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Shyamlal Yadav, Uma Shankar Dikshit, Sheila Dikshit and himself — had decided during the journey itself that Rajiv Gandhi would be the next prime minister.
“I took Rajiv to the rear of the aircraft and requested him to take over as Prime Minister. His immediate question to me was: ‘Do you think I can manage?’ ‘Yes,’ I told him, ‘we are all there to help you. You will have everyone’s support’.”
However, after they landed in Delhi and before President Giani Zail Singh administered the oath to Rajiv Gandhi, something changed. Rajiv Gandhi pushed Pranab Mukherjee out of the Congress’s equation. Both Pranab Mukherjee and Rajiv Gandhi later attributed this to “misunderstanding” based on untruth.
ANOTHER ASSASSINATION AND MISSED CHANCE
Pranab Mukherjee came back into Rajiv Gandhi’s scheme of things after his trusted aide VP Singh rebelled against him over the alleged Bofors gun scam in late 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi lost power in 1989 but the next two governments were short-lived and the Lok Sabha election of 1991 was there in no time.
Pranab Mukherjee was again number-two in the Congress and it was widely anticipated that he would be the next finance minister if Rajiv Gandhi pulled off a victory. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during the election campaign.
The Congress won a near-majority in 1991 polls, credited to sympathy vote. Pranab Mukherjee again appeared top on the list of prime ministerial candidates. But after having been accused of being visibly over-ambitious only a few years ago, Pranab Mukherjee waited patiently this time.
Pranab Mukherjee with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (Photo: Pramod Pushkarna/India Today)
The Congress rallied around Sonia Gandhi, who refused to take part in active politics and least of all in the government. She, however, ignored the candidature of Pranab Mukherjee reportedly for his once soured relation with Rajiv Gandhi.
Sonia Gandhi suggested the name of PV Narasimha Rao, who was packing his bags after announcing his political retirement having secured the permission of late Rajiv Gandhi. Pranab Mukherjee missed the bus for the second time, and was “shunted away” to the erstwhile Planning Commission as the deputy chairman. Manmohan Singh came as the finance minister and scripted history.
ONE LAST TIME IN 2009
The Congress came to power in 2004 as the pivot of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Sonia Gandhi looked all set to be the prime minister despite rousing opposition from the BJP. She ultimately refused the chair and Manmohan Singh became the prime minister at her behest.
Pranab Mukherjee served as minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet. It was a curious turn of the table. As the finance minister in the Indira Gandhi government, Pranab Mukherjee had signed the order for appointment of Manmohan Singh as the RBI governor. The reporting structure had changed.
Manmohan Singh ran into trouble with the Left Front that was propping the UPA government over the nuclear deal with the US. Manmohan Singh considered it worth to lose power over the nuclear deal than to succumb to the Left pressure.
Manmohan Singh finally had his way but the question came up for consideration in the run up to the 2009 election. The Congress was bogged down with the allegations of corruption – Adarsh scam – and the general anticipation in the party was to retain the tally it secured in 2004 polls. That would put the Congress vulnerable to the Left Front’s support.
Pranab Mukherjee revived the presidential tradition of arriving for the Beating Retreat in a horse-driven carriage decades after the tradition was discontinued. Here he is seen on the gold-plated carriage at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi on January 29, 2014 (Photo: Yasbant Negi/India Today)
Manmohan Singh was not acceptable to the Left Front. Pranab Mukherjee was. Before the 2009 election results came, there appeared a light at the end of the tunnel for Pranab Mukherjee’s prime ministerial claim – both in his own eyes and of the observers.
Speculation was rife during pre-election days that Pranab Mukherjee could be the next prime minister and Manmohan Singh could retire from the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
But when the election results came out, the Congress crossed 200-mark and the Left Front was rendered redundant. Manmohan Singh retained his chair for another five years. And, it was Pranab Mukherjee, who retired from the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Pranab Mukherjee had this to say in an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV: “I knew my limitations and my place. Whether I was a member of the Lok Sabha or not…my another deficiency was that I was not proficient in Hindi. And i do believe that to be the Prime Minister of India, one should be proficient in Hindi…the language of the masses.”