New Delhi, June 17: Everybody agrees that Pranab Mukherjee’s departure for Rashtrapati Bhavan will accentuate the crisis of talent in the Congress and affect the functioning of party and government.
Some Congress leaders are hoping that the contingency will force a habitually conservative Sonia Gandhi to be creative and courageous in promoting new talent, especially during the next cabinet shuffle and the choice of the new leader of the Lok Sabha.
However, they also accept that it would be difficult to replace Mukherjee because other frontline leaders today lack his stature or experience in both party and government.
Among the senior leaders in the Lok Sabha — Sushil Kumar Shinde, P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath, Veerappa Moily, Jaipal Reddy and Pawan Bansal — none can claim enough administrative as well as political skills to be considered a natural successor to Mukherjee.
If Chidambaram is endowed with intellectual prowess, he has hardly been an organisation man who can handle politics with as much ease as he can manage boardroom meetings. Besides, certain recent developments have clouded his image, making it difficult for Sonia to make him the leader of the House.
Shinde, considered the frontrunner because of his Dalit identity, neither has the requisite political knowledge nor is articulate enough.
Jaipal Reddy, a politician with a clean image and the gift of oratory, carries the uncomfortable baggage of being an “outsider” who regularly attacked the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi during the Bofors controversy.
Kamal Nath and Veerappa Moily are deficient in stature and acceptability, in addition to the major handicap of lacking the Prime Minister’s trust.
None of the possible candidates, anyway, can boast of the all-round experience, persuasive skills, moderate image and rapport with other parties that Mukherjee brought to the table.
In the Rajya Sabha, the Congress has better choices in A.K. Antony and Ghulam Nabi Azad but the vacancy is in the Lok Sabha.
Among the second line of leaders, there are talented people such as Salman Khurshid, Anand Sharma, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel but none can provide the “all-in-one” package that Mukherjee did.
Kapil Sibal and Jairam Ramesh understand governance issues and are articulate, but they are alien to the party organisation and grassroots politics.
Mukherjee’s uniqueness was that if he could head a Group of Ministers on a complex financial topic, he was also the ideal choice for head of a committee dealing with a thorny political issue.
His exit will leave the Congress without a leader who can smoothly fill in for the Prime Minister in his absence — as he is doing this week —and at the same time be the commanding voice at the party’s highest policy-making body, the working committee.
Senior leaders say it is difficult to find a true politician who grew up to become a genuine systems man, a virtue Mukherjee acquired through hard work and sincerity.
He has headed the party’s election campaign committees several times, drafted the party’s historical, political and economic resolutions, been a member of both Houses, and headed such key ministries as finance, commerce, external affairs and defence.
A senior leader told The Telegraph: “Pranab is a true Congress mind. He respects the values of the freedom movement; he understands the Congress tradition; he has seen the processes of change and modernisation; he adjusts to the compulsions of realpolitik instead of being an idealist; he has a sound memory and sense of history though he is not a great visionary; and, most important, he has succeeded in maintaining a good image. That’s why he has travelled so far.”
Mukherjee’s importance grew also because the Congress’s new post-Rajiv Gandhi frontline got tragically wiped out: Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada all died premature deaths.
Veteran Sharad Pawar rebelled and quit the party; Arjun Singh too fell from grace and lost his pre-eminent position in Sonia’s coterie. Although Mukherjee’s position too came under a cloud after he developed differences with Rajiv and left the Congress, he succeeded in reinforcing his credentials as a true Congressman by showing patience and perseverance in the later part of his career.
He got as many as five Rajya Sabha nominations, which means he didn’t have to fight direct elections for the bulk of his parliamentary career. But his prime ministerial ambitions dragged him to the electoral battlefield in 2004 and 2009.
When he realised it was almost impossible for him to reach 7 Race Course, he reconciled himself to his fate and grew a new ambition — of joining the very small club of India’s Presidents.
The party is happy for him but most leaders admit the veteran will be missed both in Parliament and the party organisation.
“Dada’s common sense was better than our strategies,” an All India Congress Committee functionary said.
He had a point. In the run-up to the crucial 2004 general election, the party was grilled for days and weeks on a simple question: “Should the Congress stake claim to form the government if it gets less than 200 seats, since Rajiv Gandhi had decided to sit in the Opposition after getting 197 seats (in 1989)?”
Spokespersons often fumbled and gave unconvincing answers, prompting greater probing by the media. Mukherjee closed the chapter in one interaction with the media.
He said: “Rajivji didn’t stake claim because the Congress had come down from over 400 seats, which showed the people had not renewed the mandate. Now we have around 140 and any substantive gain will reflect people’s increased faith in us.”
That’s the sort of common sense the party may now miss.