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Home » My Kolkata » People » Like Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi too regarded Pranab Mukherjee as a living encyclopaedia

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Like Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi too regarded Pranab Mukherjee as a living encyclopaedia

An exclusive excerpt from Rasheed Kidwai’s ‘Leaders, Politicians, Citizens’ on Pranab Mukherjee & his pragmatic dream of becoming president

RASHEED KIDWAI | Published 05.05.22, 07:43 PM
Pranab Mukherjee was Sonia Gandhi’s closest advisor when Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar revolted against her foreign origins

Pranab Mukherjee was Sonia Gandhi’s closest advisor when Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar revolted against her foreign origins

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Rasheed Kidwai’s Leaders, Politicians, Citizens tells the stories of 50 prominent individuals who shaped the country’s political history over the past several decades. Each profile dwells upon the individual’s legacy along with personal histories and anecdotes, capturing the person’s essence while never being judgemental.

With the author’s consent, My Kolkata brings readers excerpts from one such profile — of Pranab Mukherjee.

PRANAB KUMAR MUKHERJEE

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Pragmatic to a fault as he was, Pranab Mukherjee had first expressed his dream of occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan way back in 2001. In an interview, he candidly spoke of why he would never become the prime minister of the country or the chief minister of West Bengal. Mukherjee, a Rajya Sabha member at the time, had cited three chief reasons for this: 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 however did subsequently win his first Lok Sabha seat in 2004.) When pressed to speak about his qualities, Mukherjee blushed before responding that as a student of Indian politics, he had always dreamt of becoming the President of the republic someday.

That day would arrive over a decade later in July 2012 when Sonia Gandhi announced his name as the UPA’s nominee for the Rashtrapati Bhavan in recognition of his service spanning over five decades. Sources close to Sonia Gandhi said that unlike 2007, when the Congress president had requested him to write a public statement ruling himself out of the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan, this time around she had decided to reward his loyalty, political acumen and distinguished service to the party and the nation….

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Before this could come to be, though, there were some turbulent times in store for Mukherjee. Following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Mukherjee’s ties with Rajiv Gandhi hit the nadir. The man who was number two in the Indira Gandhi cabinet was expelled from the party in 1986. Sources close to Mukherjee insisted that it was a case of misunderstanding.

Indira Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee

Indira Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee

Tweeted by @CitiznMukherjee

Mukherjee was with Rajiv Gandhi in Bengal when news of the attack on Indira Gandhi reached them. The duo returned to New Delhi in an aircraft together. One version of what followed suggests that overwhelmed 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 Gandhi. Another version has it that when Rajiv Gandhi had posed a ‘theoretical question’ about who would take over as the ‘caretaker prime minister’, Mukherjee had stressed on seniority, which was later construed as his desire to occupy the coveted chair.

Premonition comes true

A little before the 1984-85 poll results, the Mukherjee camp had predicted that if the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi got more than 300 seats, the veteran leader would not find a place in the government. The premonition came true. It was perhaps Arjun Singh who broke the news to him. According to those present at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee put on a brave face and smiled as he stood next to Rajiv Gandhi. Next to him were three debutant members of Parliament: actors Amitabh Bachchan, Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt. A cynic present there could not help commenting, “His [Mukherjee’s] performance was so good, he could have got a job in Bollywood.”

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In his autobiographical account, Mukherjee has deftly dealt with the vexed issue of his differences with Rajiv Gandhi. In one place he wrote, “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.”

Rajiv Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee

Rajiv Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee

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For reasons unknown, the Sonia Gandhi-Pranab Mukherjee relations have always been shrouded in mystery. There is a probably erroneous and over-simplistic assumption that the Congress chief at 10 Janpath did not trust Mukherjee fully. Insiders, though, always insist that Sonia Gandhi had a healthy regard for Mukherjee and greatly valued his input….

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Mukherjee’s relations with Sonia Gandhi had evolved over the years. He was instrumental in plotting an ‘unconstitutional coup’ on 5 March 1998 against the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri to ensure Sonia Gandhi could formally take over the party….

Pranab Mukherjee had first expressed his dream of occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2001

Pranab Mukherjee had first expressed his dream of occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2001

TT archives

‘Living encyclopaedia’

He was also Sonia Gandhi’s closest advisor when Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar revolted against her on the ground of her foreign origins. It is believed that the drafts of all letters by Sonia Gandhi of that era were prepared by Mukherjee. In fact, Sonia Gandhi’s admiration for the Bengali babu dates back to Indira Gandhi’s dinner table conversations, when the former prime minister used to narrate anecdotes of Mukherjee’s wit and scholarship with relish. Like Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi too regarded him as a living encyclopaedia and an authority on a range of subjects — from food processing to culture to diplomacy to social policies….

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A word about Mukherjee lamenting the exit of Trinamool from UPA in the second phase is perhaps in order here. It must be remembered that the entire Mamata Banerjee story during the 1990s, including her exit from the Congress, has many elements and characters. Everyone knows how the likes of Somen Mitra and others were backed and propped up to drive Mamata Banerjee out of the Congress.

Mukherjee and Banerjee may have subsequently brought peace but history and its sequence of events can’t be altered as per one’s convenience.

Mukherjee with Mamata Banerjee

Mukherjee with Mamata Banerjee

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Last updated on 05.05.22, 07:56 PM
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