Pranab Mukherjee was the prime minister that India never had. Instead, he became President—the 13th in India’s line, bringing a rare political gravitas to that role. But it was the other office, that of the highest executive, that destiny seemed to have held out for him more than once—and ultimately denied. Not because he lacked stature, statesmanship or political heft. If there was one thing he lacked, it was the direct connect of the mass leader, but then he was almost the perfect embodiment of the other kind of politician—the savant, policy maven and parliamentarian in whom the spirit of institutions seemed to find their fullest expression.
Often fondly called the encyclopaedia of contemporary Indian history, current affairs and constitutional norms, Mukherjee, who died after a chest infection and related illnesses at Delhi’s Army Referral Hospital on Monday, indeed leaves a void in Indian polity, never to be filled.A man who could be the accessible Pranabda to all and sundry, and still inspire awe and respect—the eminence grise who could admonish anyone and everyone, whenever he thought it fit.
When he took oath as President in July 2012—a long way from his humble village in Birbhum, West Bengal, where he walked miles through rice fields to reach his school—he was expected to be a ‘political’ president. But he surprised even veteran analysts by being a textbook President. Never overstepping the boundaries of constitutional proprieties and his own inclusive, democratic moorings.
Unlike a Giani Zail Singh or K R Narayanan, Mukherjee did not see Rashtrapati Bhavan as an oppositional space to government. That’s why he could straddle the transition from UPA to NDA, from Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi, without a glitch. No surprise he was accorded the highest civilian award of the land, the much coveted Bharat Ratna in 2019.
However, nor was it the case that he had retreated into a grand mansion of silence. If he chose to intervene, it was not by returning legislation passed by Parliament, like some of his predecessors. Having been on the other side, he knew the sanctity of that space. Instead, he used his constitutionally mandated speeches as President to point to aberrations he noticed—thus becoming a vital stabilising figure at a very transitional time.
In that sense, much like A B Vajpayee, Mukherjee was a child, a byproduct of parliamentary democracy. He truly believed in the power of debate. He was, indeed, very pained and disturbed in his last years about the decline in parliamentary functioning, and its image, centrality and prestige.
A quintessential Congress politician, Mukherjee was neither above contradiction nor a stranger to the little intrigues of Delhi politics. He, after all, was witness to several transitions, the Emergency, two assassinations, liberalisation, the emergence of the BJP. Though it was the Congress and a reluctant Sonia Gandhi who let him make an honourable transition to presidentship, he nurtured the hurt of having been passed up for the PM’s job.
Once, after Indira Gandhi, when her son Rajiv succeeded her, and not Mukherjee, then the seniormost Cabinet minister. Later, twice, as Sonia chose Manmohan Singh over him in 2004, and did not deem it fit to even make him Home Minister (as he had told me in an interview), and when she continued with Singh despite UPA’s dwindling reputation.
He had to nearly engineer an escape to Rashtrapati Bhavan lest he be stuck in a Congress with a generation closer to his daughter Sharmistha’s age group, some of whom had neither the savvy nor the humbleness to learn the ropes. No one, however, understood Mukherjee’s political mind as much as Sonia, who once famously said she couldn’t think of a CWC meeting without “Pranabda”. She is also said to have admitted that sidelining Pranab was Rajiv Gandhi’s biggest mistake. Minus his astute political instincts guiding him, Rajiv lurched from one crisis to another.
Despite the hurt of having to report to Singh, once an official in his ministry when he was FM in the 80s, Mukherjee worked hard for the UPA regime in various top ministries, heading about 50 GoMs at one point!