Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

Pranab Mukherjee defended ‘secularism’ as one of the foundational pillars of Indian civilisation and Constitution.

Updated
Opinion
12 min read
Former President Pranab Mukherjee dies at 84
i

India has lost a tall Indian.

Pranab Mukherjee was short — only 5 feet 4 inches. Not very short by Indian standards, but he somehow looked shorter, whether he was dressed in dhoti, Bengali bhadralok style, or in bundgala (buttoned-up coat) and trouser. But his height in India’s political life, before he passed away on was comparable to the tallest among his contemporaries.

Handpicked by Indira, Dropped by Rajiv

His parliamentary life spanned 37 years, starting from 1969, which now seems such a long time ago. At 34, he was handpicked by Indira Gandhi, who effected a split in her own party in that year to give the Congress a decidedly socialist orientation. Mukherjee retained that socialist streak in him throughout his life even though he was never dogmatic in his ideology.

He held all major ministries — finance, defense, external affairs and commerce — besides serving as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, which was a highly influential body in the past, unlike its present disempowered avatar as the Niti Aayog. He served under four Congress prime ministers — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh. Even though prime ministership eluded him, his political stature was almost equal to that of Dr Singh under UPA I and UPA II.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President
Within the Congress, he was an important member of the party’s brain trust and his counsel was valued by every top leader.

He had razor sharp knowledge of history. It is a tribute to his intellectual acumen that he quickly regained the respect and confidence of his colleagues even when his political career sometimes suffered setbacks. The biggest setback came when Rajiv Gandhi dropped him from the cabinet in 1985, following the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi. In recalling this incident Mukherjee is at his candid best in his book The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996:

“All I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.”

No ‘Accidental President’

The crowning glory of his life was when he was elected President of India in 2012. He brought to the high office enormous experience, encyclopedic knowledge, and a balanced understanding of the complex realities of society, politics and governance in India that frequently test the canons of the Constitution. As the custodian of the Constitution, he conducted his responsibilities with rectitude and independence, earning the respect of two prime ministers of diametrically opposite personality traits — Dr Singh and Narendra Modi, who represented a party that he, during his long career as a committed Congressman, had strongly opposed.

True, he lacked the mass popularity of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, a scientist who became an ‘Accidental President’, but made the best of the opportunity that came his way.

Pranab da was a different kind of person. Even as a politician, he never played to the gallery. He never hesitated to speak his mind in party forums, cabinet meetings and even in parliamentary debates. In Rashtrapati Bhavan, he imparted the gravitas of an elder statesman to the highest office of the Republic.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

Cautioning the Government

The President of India occupies the largest real estate in the national capital. However, in the constitutional scheme of governance, not only are his powers limited but there are also limitations on what he can and cannot say in public. Despite this, Mukherjee used appropriate occasions to caution the government of the day, and also the society at large, whenever India’s core republican values were under stress. He often warned against growing intolerance in our society. He underscored the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech, expression and debate.

‘Democracy Without A Free Press Is Like A Blank Piece Of Paper’

In his Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture on 25 May 2017, he spoke some blunt truths.

“The question that faces all of us including the media is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by the diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative…He [Ramnath Goenka, owner of The Indian Express] was a fighter, who in the face of attempts to control the press, exemplified his willingness to stake all for his principles and to set the highest standards for press freedom in India. The blank editorial published by The Indian Express during Emergency was perhaps one of the strongest protests ever published against censorship in India. It spoke more loudly than any words could have… Democracy without a free press [is] like a blank piece of paper.”

The rapidly declining standards of debate in Parliament and State Assemblies are a constant reminder of India’s malfunctioning democracy. Mukherjee, who was himself a dedicated parliamentarian, expressed his concern and anguish on several occasions.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

In his farewell address to the two Houses of Parliament on 23 July 2017, he counseled: “When Parliament fails to discharge its law-making role or enacts laws without discussion, I feel it breaches the trust reposed in it by the people of this great country.” He also showed his displeasure over the executive’s habit of misusing the instrument of Ordinances, which he said “should be used only in compelling circumstances and there should be no recourse to Ordinances on monetary matters.”

What PM Modi Could Learn From Pranab Da

His farewell address was remarkable for two more reasons. First, for the broadmindedness he showed in paying tribute to stalwarts belonging to all political parties. He reminisced:

“I entered Parliament at a time when [it] was full of experienced Parliamentarians and leaders of the freedom movement, many of whom were brilliant speakers: M.C. Chagla, Ajit Prasad Jain, Jairamdas Daulatram, Bhupesh Gupta, Joachim Alva, Mahavir Tyagi, Raj Narain, Bhai Mahavir, Loknath Misra, Chitta Basu and many more. In fact, Bhupesh Gupta [who belonged to the Communist Party of India] was truly a legend in the Rajya Sabha…”
“My years in Parliament were further enriched by the wisdom of PV Narasimha Rao, oration of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, cryptic one-liners of Madhu Limaye and Dr Nath Pai, wit and humour of Piloo Modi, poetic discourses of Hiren Mukherjee, razor sharp repartee of Indrajit Gupta, calming presence of Dr Manmohan Singh, mature advice of LK Advani and passionate support of Sonia Gandhi on social legislations…. Listening to the stalwarts for hours and days in Parliament sitting in the Treasury or Opposition Benches, I felt one with the soul of this living institution. I understood the real value of debate, discussion and dissent.”

Have we ever heard Prime Minister Modi show such genuine and fulsome appreciation of the greatness of opposition leaders, especially Congress leaders, present or past?

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

Second, giving the example of Indira Gandhi, he sent a message to those leaders who think they never make mistakes:

“My career as a Parliamentarian was no doubt mentored by Shrimati Indira Gandhi. Her steely determination, clarity of thought and decisive actions made her a towering personality. She never hesitated to call a spade a spade. I remember after the defeat of Congress in the post-Emergency election, we had gone to London in November 1978. A large number of media persons in a fairly aggressive mood were waiting to ask Shrimati Gandhi questions. The first question that was flung at her was, ‘What have been your gains from the Emergency?’ Looking at the journalist squarely in the eye, in a level voice, Indira Gandhi replied, ‘In those 21 months, we comprehensively managed to alienate all sections of Indian people.’ Big silence followed by loud laughter! Not one question was asked after that and the media persons just melted away. And I also learnt an early lesson of acknowledging my mistakes and rectifying them. Self-correction in such situations is always a better option than self-justification.”

To anyone who is willing to learn, unlearn and relearn from one’s own and others’ experiences, democracy is a great teacher. It dissolves dogmas, has a sobering effect on bloated egos, and encourages politicians to grasp the profound truth of what Lenin, quoting Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust, used to say: “Theory, my friend, is gray, but green is the eternal tree of life.”

Mukherjee demonstrated his propensity to learn from the eternal and evergreen “Tree of Life”. Notwithstanding his socialist convictions, he became a great admirer of Deng Xiaoping, whose bold pro-market reforms catalysed China’s miraculous economic growth. Therefore, from the late 1980s onwards, he began to see the need to promote the private sector, including big business. An example of this is his admiration for the late Dhirubhai Ambani, in whom he saw India’s potential to build world-class and world-scale enterprises in critical areas of national development.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President
It was, however, his failure — and also the failure of the Congress party and the country as a whole — that India did not evolve a long-term and nationally acceptable conceptual framework for achieving what may be called “socialism with Indian characteristics”.

This is one of the main reasons for the slow and unbalanced progress of economic and political reforms in India, with no strong commitment to the goal of social justice and egalitarianism.

Pranab Mukherjee’s Visit to RSS HQ

After he left Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2017, Mukherjee demonstrated his non-dogmatic personality even more boldly when he visited the RSS headquarters in Nagpur on 7 June 2018 at the invitation of its chief, Mohan Bhagwat. Many a disapproving eyebrow was raised at his decision, especially when he called the RSS founder, Dr K.B. Hedgewar, “a great son of Mother India”. But he silenced his critics with his speech on ‘Nation, Nationalism and Patriotism’.

It is one of the seminal expositions on a theme that has created so much division and heat among Indian politicians and thinkers. With Bhagwat and RSS swayamsevaks listening to him — and the entire national audience watching him live on TV — the former President elaborately defended ‘secularism’ as one of the foundational pillars of Indian civilisation and Constitution, and effectively countered the Sangh’s advocacy of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. For proof, read the following excerpts:

He goes on:

“We see the whole world as one family (‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’) and pray for the happiness and good health of all. Our national identity has emerged through a long-drawn process of confluence, assimilation, and co-existence. The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. These have been a part of our collective consciousness for centuries. Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity.”
Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President
“The concept of Modern …Nation and Nationalism was not bound by geography, language, religion, or race. As Gandhiji explained, Indian nationalism was not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive. It was this Nationalism that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru so vividly expressed in the Discovery of India, and I quote, “I am convinced that Nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other groups in India. That does not mean that extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook, to which other matters are subordinated.”
“The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. 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, practice 7 major religions, belong to 3 major ethnic groups — Aryans, Mongoloids, and Dravidians — live under one system, one flag and one identity of being ‘Bharatiya’ and have ‘No Enemies’. That is what makes Bharat a diverse and united nation.”

Finally, quoting Kautilya’s Shloka from Arthashastra, “inscribed near lift No. 6 in the Parliament House”

प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां च हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ।।

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

Mukherjee explained the fundamental duty and priority of the modern Indian State: “In the happiness of the people lies the happiness of the king, their welfare is his welfare…People are at the centre of all activities of the state and nothing should be done to divide the people and create animosity amongst them. The aim of the state should be to galvanise them to fight a concerted war against poverty, disease and deprivation and to convert economic growth into real development. Let the objective of spreading Peace, Harmony and Happiness inform the formulation of our public policy and guide all the actions of our state and citizens in their everyday life.”

Mukherjee-Advani initiative for Congress-RSS Dialogue

As I look back at that important milestone in Mukherjee’s life, I am gratified by the fact that I was one of the few who praised him both before and after his visit to the RSS headquarters.

In my first article in The Indian Express, I opined — “Pranab Mukherjee’s proposed trip to Nagpur holds a lesson for Rahul Gandhi: Don’t be guided by the Left’s view of the Sangh.” After the visit, I wrote — “Why Rahul and Bhagwat must talk”, adding, “That dialogue could weaken the centrality of ‘secularism vs communalism debate”.

I published another comment at The Quint explaining how “Gandhian Pranab and ‘Half-Nehruvian’ Bhagwat Won the Day At RSS Headquarters”.

Finally, I must add a personal note to this homage.

As someone who worked closely with LK Advani during my long years with the BJP, I can say that the BJP veteran is among the most grief-stricken persons today because he has lost someone for whom he had high respect — and Pranab da reciprocated it in equal measure.

I was very happy when, in May 2013, Mukherjee readily accepted my invitation to grace a function organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Mumbai, with which I was associated, to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s historic voyage from Mumbai to the West to participate in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

A devotee of the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Vivekananda, he used the occasion to make an important exhortation:

“I do believe that our foremost goal should be the revival of our proud traditions in morality, ethics and social conduct. Our nation’s progress should not be hampered by the tarnishing of our national character or a weakening of the moral fibre of our society. We seem to be losing our sense of right and wrong and good and bad as we pursue our respective short-term objectives. As a result, not only is the greater public good being sacrificed, but even the private search for success and happiness is yielding short-lived, illusory and often counter-productive outcomes. Therefore, to remember Swami Vivekananda is to remember his call for re-building India’s national character.”
Pranab Mukherjee, India’s ‘Tall’ Son, Was No Accidental President

I especially remember my long conversation with him, early last year, at his 10 Rajaji Marg residence in New Delhi. I congratulated him for his effort, as a bridge-builder, to initiate a dialogue between the RSS and its ideological adversaries. I further said, “This dialogue is crucial for national unity and national progress. Now, this mission should be expanded by you and Advaniji working together to start a sustained dialogue between Mohan Bhagwat ji and Congress leaders.” He responded positively to this suggestion. He also listened very attentively to my views on the need for India to take the lead in creating a bright future for South Asia.

This, I said, requires early normalisation of India-Pakistan relations on the basis of an innovative solution to the Kashmir issue, and also comprehensive cooperation between India and China. He said: “This is very close to my heart. I am ready to make my contribution to this cause. Not only India-Pakistan, but we should also strengthen India-Bangladesh friendship.” Alas, Pulwama and Balakot happened soon after, followed by CAA, NRC and the COVID crisis. And COVID hastened Pranab da’s departure from this world.

And a tall Indian has left us.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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