Pranab Mukherjee had to bear very strange relations with the political party he belonged to, either officially or ideologically, and his home state of West Bengal which he represented politically in the Parliament. He was often criticized, in the Bengali media and mostly in the popular addas (Bengali community chat sessions), as nonperforming or not-active-enough son of the soil for the causes of the state. Some of it might be true, given the series of high and mighty ranks he held at the national level and the simultaneous recession of Bengal in almost every sense in the national scenario. However, the allegation might also be an overstatement, given the track record of performance of many a so-called performer, and show-offer as well, from the state. Mukherjee could be anything but a show-offer.
His strange relations with the Congress beat all other strangeness in his career, if any. The five-decade political and legislative career, which saw him leading, not simply holding, portfolios in Finance, External Affairs, Defence, Planning Commission, including endless political responsibilities (Official Biography), proved him as the man with the secret mantra to virtually run an aged political party that seemed to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution. He performed so well as Indira Gandhi’s Finance Minster in 1982-84 that he ascended to the highly competitive rank of No. 2 in the cabinet of a Prime Minister who reportedly enjoyed working with the coterie of changing characters (Tradition of coterie). Mukherjee had to suffer an exile in the post-Indira Congress which, under Rajiv Gandhi and his coterie, virtually threw him out until India got a Prime Minster of nonNehru-Gandhi clan in 1991. The man, who, according to many Congressmen, should have succeeded Indira by merit, was trashed by the dynasty as an example of poetic injustice, as it were. He, however, came back under P. V. Narasimha Rao and began to prove himself indispensable in the matters of administrative and political management.
The Congress (read: the dynasty) had to understand the necessity of the man, particularly in a moment when the party had entered into its historical phase of decline, and thus a highly respectable reincarnation began through a mutually beneficial understanding and recognition between the man and the party. The turnaround which began in 1991 saw its fruition from 1998 onwards as he literally became the ‘thinking cap’ of the Congress. People like Ahmed Patel could be the closest aides of the party supremo Sonia Gandhi at certain levels of realpolitik, but Mukherjee remained the answer to all situations concerning politics, governance, economy to say a few, while remaining close to the current dispensation of the dynasty at a different level. Mukherjee had his second moment of poetic injustice in 2004 when he accidentally missed the post of the Prime Minister (PM) after Sonia Gandhi declined the post, having listened to her “inner voice” (Inner voice), and made Dr Manmohan Singh the PM in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government. The strange relations continued as Mukherjee seemed to have given his career-best performance to the government and the party in multiple roles that ranged from the most crucial ministries and parliamentary posts at the Centre to the political role of leading the party in his home state, West Bengal.
The man, who could not become the PM despite the merit, became the virtual PM in the UPA government by that merit itself. Perhaps, his very merit went against him in the run-up to the PM post as it was too glaring to keep in check and use as proxy. But the beauty of the man and his relationship with his party lay in the fact that he rose to deliver his best in the numerous key roles, which none other than he could have performed at such ease, and to keep the core of governance running in a government which was otherwise maligned by a record number of scams and corruption charges.
Mukherjee entered the last phase of his active career when he became the President of India in 2012. It seemed otherwise a befitting climax in a glorious career in public life spanning over 50 years. But this prestigious appointment could not get rid of controversies, which might (not) be unwarranted and unfounded. Allegedly, Mukherjee was shunted to the ceremonial post with a view to keeping the run-up to the PM post less populated. Dr Manmohan Singh was sure enough to step down after his second term in the post. Whatever might be the case, Mukherjee proved himself again what he always did before.
India got the most deserving man at the moment to stay at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The spectacular support he received across the party lines in his presidential election continued even during the five-year term of his office. As always, Pranab Mukherjee left his signature in whatever he did, even in the confines of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, be it his rejection of the mercy pleas of the terror-convicts (mercy petition) or his highly acclaimed approach to signing or not signing Bills solely on their merits (Bills; approves). Not to forget his post-Presidency highly confident yet hugely debated visit to the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevok Sangha (RSS) in Nagpur on June 7, 2018. He remained himself in his keynote speech that made even his former party, which was dead against the visit, find something to cheer about in it (Lessons).
Mukherjee’s death has been mourned by the nation; by the people of West Bengal who have lost the last in their political who’s who in Delhi; by the Congress which was too-close-yet-too-far for the man, always. It was indeed a very special relationship!