Pranab Mukherjee (1935-2020): A Short Man, With A Tall Stature

Mukherjee’s life from a Bengal village to Rashtrapati Bhavan had it all – struggle, loyalty, betrayal and success.

Updated
India
4 min read

Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim

Video Producer: Shohini Bose

“I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi.”

That’s how Pranab Mukherjee described his journey in politics (and life) as he was sworn in as the 13th President of India on 25 July 2012.

Mukherjee’s life from the “small Bengal village” of Mirati in Birbhum district to the highest echelons of power had the full range of all political experiences – struggle, loyalty, betrayal and finally, success.

‘Pranab Da’ From Bengal

Mukherjee was born in 1935 to freedom fighter parents. His father was active in the independence movement and was also a member of the Congress.

After spending his early life in Mirati, he pursued his undergraduate studies at Suri, Birbhum before earning a Masters and a Law degree from the University of Calcutta.

He first worked in the Post and Telegraph office in Calcutta, then as a lecturer at the Calcutta University, and thereafter as a journalist.

Mukherjee joined the Congress party after this under the tutelage of Ajoy Chakraborty who was then a part of the Bangla Congress, a split-off faction of the West Bengal Congress, which joined hands with the CPI(M). As a part of the Bangla Congress, Mukherjee was deputed to handle the by-election campaign for VK Krishna Menon from Midnapore in 1969. He pulled off a successful campaign, and Krishna Menon beat the Congress candidate by over 1,87,000 votes.

This got him noticed by the Congress high-command in Delhi and eventually led to Mukherjee’s first real break in politics.

He was, thereafter, personally inducted by Indira Gandhi into her camp.

Indira Gandhi and Tryst With The Congress

Boosted by Mrs Gandhi, Mukherjee was inducted into the Rajya Sabha in July 1969.

For a long time, he was known to be the then prime minister’s number 2. However, Mukherjee’s relationship with Rajiv Gandhi was said to be strained from the beginning.

In his early days, Mukherjee saw rapid growth in the party. In 1973, he was appointed Union Deputy Minister of Industrial Development in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet. His role in the infamous 1975 Emergency has also been brought up several times. He was even named by the Shah Commission, which was formed by the Janata Dal government in 1977 to look into the excesses of the Emergency.

However, once the Gandhi government came back to power, Mukherjee was appointed finance minister in 1982. It is with him at the helm of the ministry that Manmohan Singh was appointed governor of the RBI.

Mukherjee was known to be one of the top-ranked cabinet ministers and would preside on all meetings with the prime minister. “If she hands me a broom I shall start sweeping the floor”, Mukherjee had once said about Indira Gandhi.

However, after her assassination in 1984, the new Rajiv Gandhi dispensation sidelined Mukherjee. Following his disagreements with Rajiv, Mukherjee left the Congress in 1986 to form his own party – the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress.

The Elusive Prime Ministership

In 1989, Mukherjee’s RSC merged with the Congress in West Bengal after reaching a compromise with Rajiv Gandhi. The major reason for this was seen as the party’s dismal performance in the West Bengal election of 1987. It is said in political circles that Mukherjee’s inability to emerge as a mass leader during this time hampered his long-standing dreams of becoming prime minister.

Word has it that he was passed off for prime ministership after Indira Gandhi's assassination, and then again in 2004 when the UPA came to power. Many also remarked about how Mukherjee may have internally reacted to see someone like Manmohan Singh, once his subordinate, be elevated to the post of prime minister in 2004.

However, Mukherjee has never expressed any public dissent against this. In an interview he once said, “7 RCR was never my destination”.

Over the years, Mukherjee has always been the Congress’ trouble-shooter and has held many important ministerial portfolios – including the Minister of External Affairs from 1995 to 1996, Minister of Defence from 2004 to 2006 and once again the Minister of External Affairs from 2006 to 2009. He was also the Minister of Finance from 2009 to 2012.

While reports state that Mukherjee’s tryst of suspicion with the Nehru-Gandhi family continued, his appointment as president in 2012 also showed that he was an able lieutenant of the party.

The RSS Meet of 2018

After Mukherjee exited the office of President in 2017, he made heads turn by attending an RSS event in 2018, given that the organisation was diametrically opposed to the ideology he had exalted all his life. Mukherjee made an address at the event, held at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

“The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. This plurality of our society has come through assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy. It is the ‘Perennial Universalism’ of 1.3 billion people who use more than 122 languages and 1600 dialects in their everyday lives, practise 7 major religions, belong to 3 major ethnic groups – Aryans, Mongoloids and Dravidians – live under one system, one flag and one identity of being ‘Bhartiya’ and have ‘no enemies’. That is what makes Bharat a diverse and united nation”, said Mukherjee during his address.

Mukherjee’s decision to attend the event ruffled many feathers in the Congress, including that of his own daughter, who is also a Congress leader.

Subsequently, Mukherjee had maintained cordial relations with many right-wing leaders. The conferment of the Bharat Ratna to him in 2019 by the BJP government, was seen as testimony to his skills as a politician with goodwill across party lines. Political observers say that the RSS event and Mukherjee’s demeanour in his last life, shows that while he rose above politics as a president, his mind remained that of a keen politician.

And that is exactly what Mukherjee will be remembered as. An astute statesman, a keen politician, an able administrator, and finally, a self-respecting, short man, with a tall stature.

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