It was 1977. India’s Congress party had just suffered a massive defeat in the general elections. Somewhere in central Delhi, four men were huddled in a closed-door meeting late in the afternoon. One of the four happened to be Sanjay Gandhi, former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s son and the then de facto No 2 in the Congress.
Many felt, and rightly so, Sanjay was the driving force behind the party — in many cases, even much ahead of his mother. Of the three others present at that meeting, one later went on to become a very important member of the Cabinet in P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh-led governments at the Centre.
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A front-ranking Congress leader from West Bengal and a very influential Youth Congress leader also from Bengal completed the quadruple.
‘Pranab babu’, as he was affectionately referred to both within and outside political circles, was one of those quintessential Bengalis who thrived in their natural dalliance with sometimes the absolute polar opposites, in their pursuit of the finer aspects of life — such as his penchant for a westernised style statement in the form of smoking the pipe and also his ability to carry off that ‘dhoti-kurta’ look with minimum fuss
The agenda for the meeting was to decide on the fate of a senior Congress leader called Pranab Mukherjee. At Sanjay’s behest, the decks were cleared for Mukherjee, who had fallen out of favour with Sanjay but had his connections with Indira still intact, to be thrown out on grounds of perceived “anti-party activities”.
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The draft letter for the announcement was ready and it was due to be issued to the Press by midday next. The Youth Congress leader, a close confidante of Mukherjee, was in a tizzy.
Later that night, that leader dashed back to Kolkata (then Calcutta), met Mukherjee at his Nizam Palace room in the city around 1am the next morning and told him that his political ‘epitaph’ of sorts was being given finishing touches in Lutyens Delhi!
Sensing imminent danger, Mukherjee took the 6.50am Indian Airlines flight from Dum Dum Airport in Kolkata to Delhi and went straight to Indira’s residence. The letter announcing Mukherjee’s ouster from the party was never released.
Wealth of experience
For the uninitiated, Mukherjee, the former president of India who breathed his last on Monday, was a man who had made it big in India’s political life with his razor-sharp political acumen and a wealth of experience as a parliamentarian and senior Congress leader.
But even more than that, it was Mukherjee’s ability as a man-manager within the Congress fold that endeared him to no end — first with Indira and then with Sonia Gandhi, the current interim Congress president.
That Indira had a special liking for Mukherjee is legion. Right from getting Mukherjee elected on a Rajya Sabha (Upper House of parliament) ticket to making him the finance minister to allowing him to grow in stature as the virtual No 2 in her Cabinet, it was Indira’s natural ability to spot talent that had made her repose her faith in Mukherjee until her last breath.
It was this confidence in Mukherjee and the liking she had for his ability to get under the skin of any issue and try and resolve it, no matter how complex the task at hand, that earned the Bengali ‘babu’ (gentleman) an aura in the corridors of power in Delhi like no Bengali had ever achieved before him in India’s national politics.
‘Pranab babu’, as he was affectionately referred to both within and outside political circles, was one of those quintessential Bengalis who thrived in their natural dalliance with sometimes the absolute polar opposites, in their pursuit of the finer aspects of life — such as his penchant for a westernised style statement in the form of smoking the pipe and also his ability to carry off that ‘dhoti-kurta’ look with minimum fuss.
Unassuming and humble
Seeing Mukherjee attend the inauguration of a Durga Puja in north Kolkata in 1988 as the chief guest, one wondered that perhaps here was a man so unassuming and humble that he was indeed the conceptual-construct of the ‘man on the street’ who had his feet firmly on the ground, but his fingers on the pulse of the nation!
That was ‘Pranab babu’ — never failing to set the benchmark the way he felt he ought to, without ever being overtly reticent about it. He always carried that hallmark of a typical Bengali ‘bhadralok’ (gentleman) with his soft-spoken, mild-mannered outreach to friend and foe alike.
But rub him the wrong way and you could rest assured to be treated accordingly! He was such a study in parliamentary etiquette and manners, but when the members of Communist Party of India (Marxist) tried to barrack him on the issue of price rise in the parliament in December 2009, Mukherjee was livid with his response.
“Don’t show your temper here. Show your temper somewhere else,” he had thundered, leaving even former Bharatiya Janata Party member late Sushma Swaraj shell-shocked, who was otherwise very fond of ‘Pranab da’ (elder brother).
Only dark phase
In an impeccable political career, the demise of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s rise as prime minister marked the only dark phase in Mukherjee’s political journey spanning five-decades. As the virtual No 2 in Indira’s Cabinet in 1984, Indira’s assassination should have catapulted Mukherjee to the office of the highest public servant in the world’s largest democracy.
But in reality, the age-old Congress culture of sycophancy and not being able to look beyond the Gandhi surname for a glue to hold the party together saw Rajiv, who was then just one of the general secretaries of the party, being nominated as the prime minister.
On the day of Indira’s assassination on October 31, 1984, Rajiv was touring Bengal when news first came in of Indira having been shot at by her own bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi. As Rajiv hurriedly flew back to Delhi, Mukherjee accompanied him on the same flight.
It was a truly poignant moment as that Indian Airlines plane took off from Kolkata late in the afternoon, with two claimants to the prime minister’s office seated barely inches away from each other — one, the rightful and justified one with all his hard work and political astuteness to show on his CV; the other, a more sentimental option with the Gandhi surname being his biggest and only political capital to show.
Unfortunately, the sentimental choice found a greater traction with the Congress Working Committee members late that evening in Delhi. Since then, the duo never got along, leading finally to Mukherjee being expelled from Congress in 1987.
Sonia’s bond with Mukherjee
He made a comeback to the Congress-fold within a year when the chips were down for Rajiv and he realised that shunning a political brain like Mukherjee’s was a mistake.
Rajiv didn’t live long to make amends fully, but it was wife Sonia who struck quite a bond with Mukherjee and down the decades that followed, Mukherjee’s rise as Sonia’s Crisis Manager No 1 was more-than compensatory for Rajiv’s gross miscalculations in dealing with the Bengali.
And it is sheer irony that the same Sonia, who had relied so much on “Pranab da” the political mastermind, “Pranab da” the troubleshooter, “Pranab da” the go-to person had to ultimately ‘promote’ the doyen to Raisina Hills as the president of India.
Mukherjee is no more, his legend lives on.