The debate in Rajya Sabha that day in 1969 had turned quite heated. The atmosphere unexpectedly tense, although it was past lunch time. The issue being discussed was whether or not to nationalise private banks in the country and although the speaker was relatively unknown, with a pronounced Bengali accent, the hall was packed.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in Rajya Sabha. The parliamentarian finished his speech with a flourish and although speeches towards the end of the session were invariably relegated to speakers from regional parties with ‘less national importance’, Indira Gandhi went over to Om Mehta, the chief whip, to know more about the young Bengali gentleman.
Introduction With Indira Gandhi
Mehta, much to his embarrassment, had no answer. After making some discreet inquiries, he got back to Indira. “His name is Pranab Mukherjee. He’s a member of the Bangla Congress. He studies extensively about history, politics and economy. He’s only 33 years old,” Mehta shared with Indira.
Later, CPI leader from Bengal, Bhupesh Gupta, would introduce Indira to Pranab. Subsequently, Indira Gandhi, while speaking on the issue in the House, would make a special reference to Pranab Mukherjee's prime argument, which critiqued the idea that banks were “private property” by referring to the legal history of slavery.
The details of the debate are now part of parliamentary history, but the day Pranab held Rajya Sabha in thrall would be followed by many more in Pranab Mukherjee’s incredible political career and his meteoric rise.
Innings as a Young Congressman
Today, decades later, when Pranab Mukherjee is finally done with his extraordinary political career, the story of his first innings as a young Congressman has special relevance. Mukherjee, after all, was a president who was the quintessential holder of a constitutional office before anything else.
I first met him 32 years ago in Kolkata which was then called Calcutta. At the time, he had been expelled from the Congress by Rajiv Gandhi. In response, he had launched a party called the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress.
I had just begun my career and through Amiyo Banerjee – a Pranab loyalist who had followed him out of the Congress – I got my first meeting with the man, who was until recently one of the most important politicians in the country.
I reached his double-storey flat at Southern Avenue in Kolkata, understandably nervous. After all, I was a recent graduate from Calcutta University, taking the first baby steps as a reporter. Pranab babu, I found, wasn't very happy with the political atmosphere in the country. Particularly his own confrontation with Rajiv Gandhi – something that he told me he never wanted.
The confrontation, he told me had been imposed on him. But even then, he was smart enough to realise that the odds were stacked against him. Pranab is not a popular leader, he has never been a Bidhan Roy or an Atulya Ghosh. But he, at the time, felt insulted and victimised. He had hoped that Bengal would rally behind him and by playing the emotional aspect of being victimised, he could garner votes in Bengal for his party. But that didn’t happen.
'When Waves Are High, He Keeps His Head Down'
Pranab lost and found himself in dire straits. After my first meeting, I had travelled with him extensively. In his car, a blue Maruti (if my memory serves me right), we spoke extensively about politics and history. One senior journalist, after one of these trips, had told me that Pranab was the man who couldn't sink. “When waves crash on him, he just keeps his head down. Once the waves retreat, the tide changes, he will be standing again.”
That is what happened. Pranab rejoined the Congress, worked his way back. Never again, courting controversy, never rebelling. Years later, he would tell me that opposing Rajiv Gandhi had been the biggest mistake of his life. He had overestimated his capacity and underestimated Rajiv.
Pranab never forgot this. Not even during his presidency.
Pranab was never interested in such a media campaign. If anything, he made the beat, a rather boring one for us journalists. But that isn't to say that he let the government get away with things he felt were damaging to the country.
For instance, Mukherjee, sources have maintained, has had meetings with the chief of staff of different armed forces. Something that was never publicised by Mukherjee and never made it to newspapers.
Not a Rubber Stamp
He wasn't a rubber-stamp President, neither was he an aggressive one like Zail Singh. If anything, he courted the line of constitutional propriety. Take for instance, President Abdul Kalam – who would often inform the press of various developments, which cast him in a strong light.
Kalam would send back files. But in our Constitution, the President's powers are curtailed. He doesn't have executive power. The publicity, that these returned files would get Kalam helped create the image of an oppositional President. Pranab never bothered about those things, instead Pranab objected to files carefully and informed the cabinet about legal positions.
So, this was Pranab expressing his opinion, disagreeing but not openly, and certainly not through the media without flexing his presidential muscle. His did not disrupt the Constitution and was actually following the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution. This is Pranab Mukherjee.
Those who thought that he will be a mere textbook head-of-the-state, they now know that he is more than that. He is not a man who will act politically and he did not betray any bias.
Actually, in our Constitution, there is a creative space for the President to exercise his powers.
Pranab will be remembered for a number of things. But most of all he will be remembered as the man who was always a student of the Constitution. This never changed; it defined him.
(The article is based on conversation with Jayanta Ghosal. He is Delhi-based editor of Ananda Bazar Patrika.)
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