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The Minister who read too much

Pranab Babu spoke English with a Bengali accent yet made it to the top. Here’s why
Pranab Mukherjee

Paran Balakrishnan   |   New Delhi   |   Published 31.08.20, 06:22 PM

Pranab Mukherjee was an unusual politician and his success was unusual given that the odds were stacked against him. He was not a grassroots politician and he lost most of the elections he contested. He was not an intellectual in the Bengali sense of the word and he didn’t come from an English-speaking background (all his life he spoke the Queen’s language with a heavy Bengali accent). He was also singularly lacking in charisma. He thus broke all the rules that had governed Bengal’s politics harking back to C.R. Das and Subhas Chandra Bose to Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu.

But he had other strengths. Most notable was the fact that he was born into politics. From their home in Mirati village, his father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee controlled, and had an iron grip on, Birbhum district politics. Along with his alphabet, his son learnt the first rules of public life: influence-peddling and networking. He was a zealous student and never forgot the lessons.

Mukherjee’s first big opportunity came soon after he had moved to Calcutta in the 1960s and dived into the thick of state politics. The Syndicate that ruled the Congress Party in Bengal, as elsewhere, threw a dissident leader out of the party. Mukherjee sensed that politics in India was changing and he chose to side with the dissident leader and was also expelled.

He had timed it perfectly. Feelings against the Congress party were rising and in the assembly elections the dissidents scraped together enough seats to be the deciding factor. The Left successfully wooed the breakaway Congress by agreeing to make the Congress dissident leader the chief minister. Even Jyoti Basu agreed to serve as the deputy chief minister.

Mukherjee knew though that no good could come out of an association with the Communist party. By then, the Congress Party had split into two parties - the Indira Gandhi Congress and the old Congress. Mukherjee skilfully negotiated a way for his group to ally with Indira Gandhi and even managed to win himself a junior minister portfolio in Delhi. His senior in the ministry was Kamlapati Tripathi, a UP Brahmin who preferred temple-hopping to ploughing through ministerial files.

That task was left to the young Mukherjee who learnt the other important lesson, one his father had not taught him, namely that if you want to run India, you must know your files. He was not house tamed by the babus -- he became one.

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Mukherjee was not quite the ultimate old-school politician. True, he had friends in every political nook and cranny and beyond, and he knew when to cash in on his friendships. True, he held almost all the great offices of state, shuttling between finance, defence and external affairs with equal ease. But he had one redeeming feature which the rest lacked. He could read, and he read, every file that came his way. Jagjivan Ram, the most outstanding of all Indira Gandhi's ministers, was once asked who was the best minister he had seen. “Pranab Mukherjee,” Ram replied. Why? “He reads the files” was Ram’s response. Others had different views. Arun Jaitley who regarded Mukherjee highly thought there was always a danger of losing the tree for the wood. Pranab had a fondness for Jaitley but thought that without spending time on files, one could never have a grip on the Ministry. Understandably, Mukherjee's role model as Finance Minister was C.D. Deshmukh, a civil servant who went on to become the governor of the Reserve Bank and then the Finance Minister.

Mukherjee harboured ambitions of being prime minister but being elevated to the presidency was an impressive consolation prize.

In the political world, he was famed for his elephantine memory that made him the go-to man during any political discussion. Whether it was Bengal or any other part of the country, he could rattle off events and even the dates on which they occurred. “He was a ‘human computer’ like Shakuntala Devi. In most states, he could also give you the macro picture. He was relied on for spot information,” said a former bureaucrat. In addition, he was a meticulous diary-writer and brought out two books based on his memories and the contents of his diaries.

Mukherjee held a law degree as well as an MA in history and political science. He often made jokes about his diminutive stature. Many in the political world turned up at his doorstep for advice when they were in difficulties. Once he shifted into a counselling role, many say, he would switch off his political side.

He was also an administrator who could keep his cool when all others around him were losing theirs. Towards the end of his political career, bureaucrats reported he got irritable more quickly but even that was only an occasional flare-up, such as on TV when he ticked off interviewer Rajdeep Sardesai and told him to mind his tone when speaking to a former president of India.  

Above all, he was a man who cared about politics and political processes. One visitor to Rashtrapati Bhavan found him intently watching the parliamentary proceedings on Lok Sabha TV and muttering irately at the screen: “He should not have said that.”  

Early in his career, he caught Sanjay Gandhi's eye and was catapulted to high office even before he was 40. It is said he won his attention with the help of Kamal Nath, who was, at the time, a Calcutta businessman but making his mark in politics.

Mukherjee proved his worth as a junior minister in the finance ministry. Noida, on Delhi's outskirts, was Sanjay Gandhi's pet project but even he could not get the State Bank of India to open a branch in Noida. At Mukherjee's suggestion, the Finance Ministry was split into two independent entities -- Revenue and Finance -- both reporting independently to the prime minister. As the revenue minister, Mukherjee instructed the State Bank of India to open the branch.

The problem was resolved and a legend, that of the go-to man, was born.

By 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned to power after the brief Janata Party interregnum, Mukherjee received a huge promotion and was made Commerce Minister at the age of only 47 -- still very youthful by Indian political standards.

In 1982, two years later, his dreams came true. He became the Finance Minister of India. Mukherjee fought the election against Indira Gandhi's wishes and lost. Indira Gandhi was reluctant to include a defeated candidate. It was Sanjay Gandhi who persuaded his mother to change her mind. It also set the curious precedence for finance ministers (or wannabe finance ministers) who lost the election to be inducted into the Cabinet through the back door. Arun Jaitley and Jaswant Singh took advantage of this unfortunate example. Manmohan Singh did one better. He became the Prime Minister.

Pranab Mukherjee was essentially a Sanjay Gandhi protégé but he was aware of the negative consequence of this association. He downplayed this relationship and instead pulled out all the stops to portray himself as an Indira Gandhi man.

But his relationship with Sanjay was to haunt him later in his career. Rajiv didn’t trust the Sanjay men and Mukherjee’s clumsy effort to become an interim prime minister when Indira Gandhi was assassinated was seen as an additional and very glaring black mark. Pranab was not included in the Rajiv Cabinet in 1984 and later at the first opportunity, Rajiv Gandhi expelled him from the Congress Party. It took him a great deal of effort (and a failed attempt to launch a party) to be allowed back. Mukherjee admitted that being dropped from the cabinet left him “shell shocked and flabbergasted”. The Rajiv years were for Mukherjee the years of wilderness and the political aridity spilled over to the Rao era. He could regain a cabinet berth only in 1995 after 12 long years in the no-man’s land.

 

Earlier, it was during his time in the Commerce Ministry that he grew close to Dhirubhai Ambani and the Reliance Group. At the Commerce Ministry, he learnt the intricacies of how, especially in the heyday of the licence raj, duties could make or break products and, indeed, companies.

By the time Mukherjee was back in favour, the Rajiv Gandhi government had lost its energy amidst the artillery fire surrounding the Bofors gun deal, and also the Shah Bano imbroglio. Later, he was pipped to the post to be finance minister in P. V. Narasimha Rao’s government. Mukherjee had misread Rao as he earlier had misread Rajiv Gandhi. He had also misread the change in ideological climate. Globalisation was beginning and was being endorsed even by communist countries. Deng's China and Gorbachev's Russia had all mended their ways. Mukherjee, a diehard statist, was the wrong man at the wrong time.

Not merely did Rao have a new finance minister, he also had a radically new economic policy. The nation had made a 180-degree turn. Mukherjee was history's baggage. Still he got another innings when Chidambaram was replaced by Mukherjee in the UPA era. But he was clearly at odds with the new India. Worse, he was largely blamed for the economic downturn of the UPA2 that paved the way for a Modi triumph. His last act as the Finance Minister was to introduce the infamous Retrospective Taxation which amended a 50-year-old regulation and gave the government power to change laws with retrospective effect. This was Mukherjee’s last hurrah and a valiant last-ditch effort to bring back the rules-regulation Raj. From all accounts, he succeeded. The new law is said to be the single important factor in reducing foreign investments in India. His departure in 2012 for the Rashtrapati Bhavan saved him some embarrassment.

Mukherjee himself always insisted he couldn’t become prime minister because he didn’t speak fluent Hindi. Others joked that, with his strong Bengali accent, he didn’t speak English either. Even after decades in Delhi and criss-crossing the world, his accent didn’t change the slightest. Some put this down to his innate belief in Bengali superiority. “Bengalis know there is only one language on earth and English is just a dialect of Bangla,” said another bureaucrat who knew him well. Mukherjee was unfazed whether he was meeting the Queen of Great Britain or any other world leader. “He would speak to the Queen in Buckingham Palace and he stuck to his village college-teacher English. He didn’t care about his background or his height,” the bureaucrat said. Mukherjee’s first job had been as a lecturer in a local college before he shifted to Calcutta.

It was common knowledge that Mukherjee, and many others, blamed former West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray – with whom he didn’t get along -- for the Emergency. But Mukherjee, himself, was a prime beneficiary of the Emergency and a charter member of the Sanjay Gandhi faction. He was also at odds with former minister A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhary, another Congress Party mass leader in Bengal.

In other ways, he was the quintessential Congressman and he took a stern line on communalism. Once when a communal incident broke out and others were caught off-balance, he delivered a strong lecture, quoting, as he was wont, earlier instances when the Congress had fought communalism – even throwing in the exact dates when the incidents had happened.

Later in life, however, he took a milder line towards an organisation like the RSS. He adopted the view, as one observer explained, that “if you keep them in the doghouse, they will do many things in an effort to shock you”. Mukherjee argued that the RSS should be mainstreamed and that would force them to “soften down,” the observer said. That outlook may have been the reason for his trip to Nagpur in 2018 where he addressed RSS swayamsevaks and even praised the institution’s founder, though he did also emphasize the importance of tolerance.

It was an open secret that Mukherjee wasn’t Sonia Gandhi’s first choice for the presidency. But he built up support at different levels and is said to have forced her hand and easily won the largely ceremonial post. He had recognised he was growing older and the one job he wanted wasn’t coming to him. Later, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, he knew that nothing would induce the BJP to give him a second term, but he did sound out Modi gently about his re-election. “You are a Congress nominee,” said Modi almost mischievously. “If the Congress Party proposes your name, we shall consider it,” Modi added. Mukherjee knew the game was lost. He bowed out quietly and gracefully, citing “health complications relating to old age”.

Modi was otherwise kind to Mukherjee. He may not have given him a second term but he did honour him with the Bharat Ratna. That was more a put down to Advani (who certainly contributed much more to the nation from the Hindutva point of view) and also to Manmohan Singh (whose contributions surpass Mukherjee's by the long shot).

It marked a low-key close to a long and illustrious political career. While it wasn’t perhaps the triumphant finale that he might have chosen for himself, it was very far from an ignominious ending.

Mukherjee was predeceased by his wife, Suvra Mukherjee, who died in 2015. The couple had two sons and a daughter. Sharmistha Mukherjee is an accomplished Kathak dancer and choreographer who contested the 2015 Delhi Assembly election as a Congress candidate but failed to win. Abhijit Mukherjee served as a Congress MP from Bengal from 2012 to 2019.

In 2012, Sharmistha wrote about her father for India Today, recalling he had to walk nearly 10km every day to school and there was a stream on the way that during the monsoon became a gushing torrent. “Whenever I close my eyes trying to visualise my father, I see this little boy standing by the roaring stream thinking about how to cross it. He has crossed that and many other barricades in his life and walked a long way since then,” she said.



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