In an interview with a journalist, he also spoke candidly of why he would never become prime minister of the country or chief minister of West Bengal. Mukherjee, a Rajya Sabha member at the time, cited three main reasons: one, his poor command over Hindi; two, he lacked the leadership qualities of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jyoti Basu, Rajiv Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee; and three, his inability to win a Lok Sabha seat (Mukherjee subsequently won his first Lok Sabha in 2004).
When pressed to speak about his qualities, Mukherjee blushed before responding that as a student of
That “someday” arrived in July 2012 when Sonia Gandhi announced his name as UPA’s presidential candidate in recognition of his services, spanning over five decades. Sources close to Sonia said that unlike in 2007, when the Congress president had requested him to write a public statement ruling himself out of the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan, she decided to reward his loyalty, political acumen and distinguished service to the party and the nation.
Veteran of the old guard
In 1977-78, when most Congress stalwarts had deserted Indira, Mukherjee had stood by her and even served as treasurer of Congress (Indira) when a handful of party office bearers had set up the office at 24, Akbar Road in New Delhi. It was a testing time for Indira and her party as she was herself ‘homeless’ at the time.
Her Mehrauli farmhouse was half-built and she was forced to stay at the residence of Mohammad Yunus at 12, Willingdon Crescent with Rajiv-Sonia, Sanjay Maneka, two grandchildren and five dogs.
When Indira staged a comeback in 1980, Mukherjee emerged as her key trouble-shooter. In 1984, he was rated as one of the best five finance ministers of the world by Euromoney magazine. His trust quotient with Indira was so unwavering that on a few occasions she would let him handle key assignments that involved the task of prevailing upon three senior ministers, R Venkataraman, PV Narasimha Rao and ND Tiwari. Mukherjee’s former cabinet colleagues recall the ease with which he used to bring about consensus in the cabinet, making the task of the Prime Minister that much easier.
I was new to Delhi in 2014. From Day 1, I was blessed to have the guidance, support and blessings of Shri Mukherjee. I will always cherish my interactions with him
PM Narendra Modi
At the political level, Mukherjee acted as a crisis manager from Indira era to Manmohan era. It is said, Indira used Mukherjee to secure the resignation of a reluctant AR Antulay in 1982 following a corruption scandal, which he was later cleared from. That era saw Mukherjee acting as Indira’s enforcer in Andhra and other states where chief ministers were replaced successively. When Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, Mukherjee continued to call him “PV” in private, but in cabinet and other formal meetings, he always addressed him as “Mr Prime Minister Sir”. When Manmohan became the Reserve Bank of India governor, Mukherjee held the finance portfolio. But when the economist became Prime Minister in May 2004, he saw Mukherjee addressing him as “Mr Prime Minister Sir.” Mukherjee had the ultimate satisfaction of hearing Manmohan address him as “Mr President Sir” when he moved to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The ‘turbulent years’
Following Indira assassination, Mukherjee’s ties with Rajiv hit the nadir. The man who was number two in the Indira cabinet was expelled from the party in 1986. Sources close to Mukherjee would insist that it was a case of misunderstanding, which was eventually cleared up when Rajiv brought him back into the Congress. He was with Rajiv in Bengal when news of the attack on Indira reached them. The duo returned in the same aircraft.
One version of the events is that overcome by grief, Mukherjee went to the aircraft’s toilet and wept. He then chose to sit at the back of the aircraft because his eyes were red. But his opponents within the Congress accused him of “plotting and scheming” against Rajiv.
Another version has it that when Rajiv had posed a “theoretical question” about who will be the “caretaker Prime Minister”, Mukherjee had stressed on “seniority”, which was later construed as him hinting at wanting to occupy the coveted chair.
A little before the 1984-85 poll results, Mukherjee camp had predicted that if the Congress under Rajiv got more than 300 seats, the veteran leader would not find a place in government. The premonition came true. It was perhaps Arjun Singh who broke the news to him gently. According to those present at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee had put on a brave face as he stood next to Rajiv with a fixed smile on his face. Next to him, were three debutant members of parliament, actors Amitabh Bachchan, Vyjayanthimala Bali and Sunil Dutt. A cynic present there could not help commenting: “His [Mukherjee] performance was so good, he could have got a job in Bollywood.” Subsequently, Mukherjee left the Congress to float his own political party Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, which merged with the Congress party in 1989. Later, he won Rajiv’s confidence again and went on to hold several ministerial portfolios and important positions in the party under PV Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri and Sonia Gandhi.
Always admired the way he combined his sharp intellect with hard work
In the second part of his memoirs titled, The Turbulent Years – 1980-199, Mukherjee wrote when he was dropped from the cabinet in December 1984. “Rajiv was a reluctant politician. He was forced by circumstances to become Prime Minister at the age of 40. He was ahead of his times. He wanted rapid change and saw the old guard in the Congress as an obstacle to his vision…. In contrast, I was a conservative, conventional political leader who favoured the public sector, a regulated economy and wanted foreign investment only from NRIs.”
Mukherjee says in the book that he was often asked whether he bore a grudge against Rajiv. In fact, he refers to an interview Rajiv Gandhi had given to Aroon Purie of India Today, just before his assassination in May 1991, where he said he learnt that many things had been said about them that weren’t true.
According to Mukherjee, his proximity to the Congress old guard, such as Kamalapati Tripathi and Vasantdada Patil, had angered Rajiv. “To return to the question of why he dropped me from the Cabinet and expelled me from the party, 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.”
A man of all seasons
Among his innumerable attributes, Mukherjee was known to keep pace with changing times and observe propriety in the best possible way. It was a hallmark of his personality.
Old timers recall Mukherjee as someone who was stickler for rules. In the early 1980s, he was finance minister and number two in the Indira Gandhi cabinet. Mukherjee used to stay in a private accommodation at S-22, Greater Kailash in New Delhi. Each time his official car would cross Savitri Cinema, he would ask the driver not to blow the horn as it would disturb the neighbourhood.
Mukherjee subsequently shifted to Luyten’s Delhi at 2, Jantar Mantar Lane, sharing a boundary wall with 6, Raisina Road bungalow, where Atal Bihari Vajpayee resided. Despite sharp ideological differences, Mukherjee would often join Vajpayee in post dinner strolls. Many times, Vajpayee’s foster daughter Namrata would rush in asking for ‘Bengali achaar’ (pickle) from Surva Mukherjee. After marriage, Namrata became a Bhattacharya and the strong bond with Mukherjees continues till day.
Our former president, aBharat Ratna and athorough gentleman…
Incidentally, Mukherjee was a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat from 1979 to 1985. During his stint, he rose to become Indira’s number two and developed proximity to noted businessman Dhirubhai Ambani. Mukherjee was also a long standing friend of PV Narasimha Rao. When Rajiv died and Rao became prime minister, he turned to Mukherjee to assist him in the cabinet formation. Smoking the finest Havana cigars gifted by a friend, Mukherjee stayed up most part of a night to prepare an exhaustive list. Perhaps modesty prevented him from inserting his own name when he sent the final list sent to the then president R Venkataraman. Mukherjee was subsequently made deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.
Faithful until the end
The hot and humid evening of May 22, 2004 saw a somewhat relaxed Mukherjee when the UPA ministers under Manmohan Singh were sworn in. As television channels went wild speculating about who was going to get what portfolio, Mukherjee sat quietly at his Talkatora Road residence in New Delhi, reportedly going through various reports on the functioning of the Union home ministry. Kashmir had seen a terror attack a few hours before and some news channels—confident that they were interviewing the next home minister — even aired some of his comments. But later that night, Mukherjee was given the defence portfolio.
Eyewitness accounts said there was an air of disbelief at Talkatora Road. In political circles, there is an errant impression that the defence portfolio somehow ranks below home.
Mukherjee however, remained unfazed. He reportedly took barely a few seconds to grasp the news. When he returned from the washroom upon hearing the news, he told his assistant in a measured voice: “Connect me to the defence secretary”. By the time he shifted out to North Bloc at the Raisina Hills as finance minister, Mukherjee telephoned his successor AK Antony and said, “I am giving you all my sleepless nights.”
Experience taught Mukherjee that in the slippery corridors of power there’s no time to ponder over unfulfilled possibilities or remain prisoner of one’s wishes.
For reasons unknown, Sonia-Mukherjee relations have always been shrouded in mystery. There is an erroneous and over-simplistic assumption that the Congress chief did not ‘trust’ Mukherjee fully.
Nothing would be farther from the truth. Mukherjee’s relations with Sonia have evolved over the years. He was instrumental in plotting an “unconstitutional coup” on March 5, 1998 against the then Congress Sitaram Kesri to ensure Sonia formally took over the party in March 1998.
Nation has lost a brilliant leader. My sincere condolences to his family
In the third edition of his memoirs, The Coalition Years: 1996-2012, dedicated to the “Indian voter”, Mukherjee recalled how Jitendra Prasada and Sharad Pawar were vociferously seeking a change of leadership in the Congress. Mukherjee admitted that there was no provision for the removal of the Congress president in the party constitution, but said he had studied it minutely to find a solution.
He was also Sonia’s closest advisor when Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar revolted against her on grounds of her foreign origins. It is believed that the drafts of all letters by Sonia of that era were prepared by Mukherjee. In fact, Sonia’s admiration for the Bengali babu dates back to Indira Gandhi’s dinner table conversation, when the former prime minister used to narrate anecdotes of Mukherjee’s wit and scholarship with relish. Like Indira, Sonia regarded him as a living encyclopaedia and an authority on a range of subjects from food processing to culture to diplomacy to social policies.
Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s move to be the chief guest at the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur on June 7, 2018 drew a fair amount of controversy. But, I feel, it should be seen more as RSS’ constant attempt to broaden its base and appropriate iconic figures, and nothing else. After all, contrary to popular perception, the chequered history of RSS-Congress relations show patches of cosy relations and proximity that brought dividends to both sides.
By the time Mukherjee’s term as president ended in 2017, he built a reputation as a preservationist, as he set up a museum where forgotten treasures of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, such as a portrait of Lord Irwin, walking stick of VV Giri and other items were dusted, restored and granted a proud audience in a garage-turned-museum inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan. As president, Mukherjee also earned the dubious distinction of rejecting a record 37 mercy petitions filed by death row convicts and sending them to the gallows. Some of the persons hanged during his tenure were Mumbai terror attack convict Ajmal Kasab,
Those who knew him will recall that Mukherjee had a habit of saying, “there are three things…” when he would talk. But he would often make only two points and omit the third one. In a way, his three volume memoirs suffer from the same condition; it wasn’t the truths he wrote about, but what he left out.
In Photos: GRP returns lost, stolen valuables of Mumbaikars
Ringing in after 15 years
Stolen in 1974, recovered 26 years later
GRP recovers wallet lost 14 years ago
‘The GRP pulled off a miracle’
Sonsaure’s chain was snatched in 2012
After two decades, valuables return to rightful owner
Stolen ring returned after 30 years
From Mumbai to Bengaluru….
Gold returned after 10 years