Yet for all his accomplishments, organizational skills and cross-party popularity, Pranab Mukherjee, who died Monday at the age of 84, could never become India’s prime minister.
He may have been India’s man for all seasons, but the top job has somehow eluded him – time and time again.
His greatest chance may have come in 2004. As former Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid noted in his autobiography, “Dr. Manmohan Singh’s selection of Pranab Mukherjee (then was a surprise not only to Congress but also to foreigners.”
“In retrospect, many argue that Congress could have avoided the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 (when the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi took power) if the choice had been different or even if we had changed horse along the way”, when the government led by Manmohan Singh was mired in corruption scandals.
There was another occasion earlier that will forever be associated with Mukherjee.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Mukherjee separated from Congress for nearly five years. The reason for his departure from Congress was his ambition – he would have liked to become prime minister. But the party support was with Rajiv Gandhi. Mukherjee then formed his own political party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. He returned when Rajiv Gandhi invited him back and merged his party with Congress in 1989.
Mukherjee’s glittering political career was crowned with, if not the coveted prime ministership, the next best thing – becoming president of India in 2012.
Mukherjee not only held valuable portfolios at different times in his career, but he also led several Groups of Ministers (GoMs) under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. Mukherjee is remembered for retrospectively overseeing the amendment of India’s income tax law and signing the 10-year Defense Partnership Pact with the United States during this time.
A politician with many friends across the aisle, Mukherjee was last year awarded India’s highest civilian honor of Bharat Ratna by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.
Those who knew him closely remember him as someone who found allies across the political spectrum, a quality that helped navigate him through the presidential election in 2012 where he defeated the former president. from Lok Sabha, PA Sangma. He remained in office until July 2017.
“Sangma was a senior tribal leader and one of the parties we were looking to support for Mukherjee’s candidacy was Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which naturally faced a dilemma. During the election campaign period, when I was in charge of the Congress in Jharkhand, Mukherjee called me one night in the wee hours and asked if I could take the emergency plane to Ranchi. He felt that JMM could only support him if Congress approached them publicly before Sangma. I met the JMM leaders the next day and the rest is history,” former union minister Shakeel Ahmad, who worked with Mukherjee on the UPA-1 cabinet, told Mint. and party for several years.
Ahmad added that Mukherjee was “one of the sharpest minds” in government and a voracious reader. almost as a practice, whether in his ministry, the GoM or in the party.”
Mukherjee’s political journey began in 1969 when he was handpicked by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and given the opportunity to become a Member of Parliament (MP) in Rajya Sabha. Although new to public life, his father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee had been a freedom fighter associated with the Congress party.
Four years after entering public life, Mukherjee’s big moment came in 1973 when he was appointed Deputy Minister of Industrial Development in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. He backed Indira Gandhi when Congress imposed a state of emergency on the country in 1975, then became finance minister in 1982 when she returned to power after the 1980 general election.
Less than 10 years after entering politics, Mukherjee had become the most important Congress leader outside the Gandhi family. The mercurial rise continued in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was appointed deputy leader of Congress in Rajya Sabha in 1979 and leader of the house in 1980.
“I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes on the journey that has taken me from the twinkling of a lamp in a small village in Bengal to the chandeliers of Delhi,” his life was succinctly described during his speech. to become President of India.
It was not always easy for Mukherjee.
“Whatever he achieved, he did it on his own merit. He came to the national level after being a grassroots politician, so he had certain ambitions in life. He wanted to be Prime Minister of the country and in done four times there was a chance but it couldn’t bear fruit,” said Gautam Lahiri, a veteran journalist and author of a book tracing Mukherjee’s political journey.
“He was always among the top politicians, but somehow he couldn’t gain 100% trust from the leaders. There was a kind of mistrust about his ambition and in particular there was a fear that he was the man who could overthrow the Gandhi family. So you could say it was a palace policy where he was used by all the rulers, but he was never able to gain that kind of trust,” Lahiri added.
Mukherjee’s political fortunes improved in the 1990s and he was appointed Chairman of the Planning Commission in 1991 and became Foreign Minister in the PV Narsimha Rao government in 1995. A loyalist, Mukherjee helped convince Sonia Gandhi to take control of the party and played a key role in building an alliance for Congress that ultimately defeated the NDA government led by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.
While many thought Sonia Gandhi would choose Mukherjee as prime minister, he again lost the chance to join party loyalist Manmohan Singh. It was ironic that Singh was the Governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) when Mukherjee was finance minister and now he is expected to serve under Singh in his cabinet.
“His ambitions made him a thoughtful politician who maintained cordial relations with everyone. He was not a public leader and was more of a master strategist. The only agony of his public life was that he could not become prime minister. He was so aware of what he wanted that he said it himself, he couldn’t become prime minister because he didn’t speak Hindi,” Lahiri added.
During the 10 years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Mukherjee remained the most important political leader.
A key decision by the Ministry of Finance under Mukherjee that grabbed global headlines was to retrospectively amend India’s income tax law to tame multinational corporations that engage in transactions. offshore stock market to buy Indian companies without having to pay capital gains tax here.
It was a crucial decision in India’s fight against corporate tax evasion. In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that Vodafone Group Plc’s $11 billion offshore deal to acquire Hutchison Essar Ltd. – later renamed Vodafone India Ltd – was not taxable in India. In the Finance Act that year, Mukherjee sought to amend the law to clarify that such transactions were always taxable in India, even if performed overseas. The tax dispute was eventually submitted to international arbitration.
Again, it was Mukherjee who, as Minister of Defense in 2005, signed the 10-year Defense Partnership Pact with then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a visit to the United States, changing the trajectory of defense relations between India and the United States. The pact allowed defense trade to take off between the two countries – unheard of in previous decades – and laid the groundwork for technological collaboration. As foreign minister, Mukherjee spearheaded India’s campaign against Pakistan and terrorism after the November 2008 bombings in Mumbai.
He was considered the main troubleshooter of the UPA government.
A devout but strongly secular Hindu, Mukherjee was famous for his photographic memory and quick temper. A quintessential Bengali bhadralok, he delighted the press during the Durga Puja celebrations he held in his ancestral village in West Bengal, where he was at peace with his surroundings.
Mukherjee’s wife, Suvra Mukherjee, died in 2015. His political legacy in Congress continues with his daughter Sharmishta Mukherjee who is a top Delhi leader and Abhijit Mukherjee, a Lok Sabha MP. Her third child is Indrajit Mukherjee.
(Elizabeth Roche, Utpal Bhaskar, Pretika Khanna and Gireesh Chandra Prasad contributed story)
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