Pranab Mukherjee, veteran Congressman who visited RSS headquarters, is now Bharat Ratna
Known for his erudition, former President Pranab Mukherjee, never a man of the masses, has been an experienced policy hand and a crisis manager for the Congress.
The one Congress leader after Sardar Patel who has found immense favour with the ruling BJP is former President Pranab Mukherjee. Indeed, the BJP has had words of appreciation for Lal Bahadur Shastri and some freedom fighters – including Mahatma Gandhi, in recent decades – but Mukherjee has pulled off a surprise by bagging the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna, under the Narendra Modi government.
There were signs of this appreciation – even awe – when he was a Union minister, but Mukherjee’s decision to visit the RSS headquarters in Nagpur – something no Congress leader did for decades – gave him a unique position in the eyes of the regime.
At that event -- in June, 2018 -- with RSS volunteers performing physical exercises in the large ground as a spectacular display of their “training”, Mukherjee extolled India’s tradition of tolerance. Yet, as he recalled Indian history, his favourite subject, he skipped any mention of medieval times, perhaps conscious that he should be gracious to his hosts even as he administered gentle admonition to them.
When Mukherjee, a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman with Nehruvian inclinations, was Finance Minister in the UPA days, BJP leaders would be full of praise for him, purportedly on account of his erudition and experience. If Sushma Swaraj would accord respect to him in Parliament the way she would not show to any other Congress leader, Ravi Shankar Prasad once told journalists – including this writer – that Mukherjee had headed more Groups of Ministers than any other political leader.
President Kovind presents Bharat Ratna to Shri Pranab Mukherjee, former President of India. A statesman and one of India’s most respected political leader, Shri Pranab Mukherjee served the nation in various capacities in his long political career spanning over five decades pic.twitter.com/41fqJlnBHS— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) August 8, 2019
The real reason for the praise was their pitch that Mukherjee had been denied the Prime Ministerial post by the Nehru-Gandhi family, which had chosen a “pliable” Manmohan Singh instead. In other words, Mukherjee was to Dr. Singh what Sardar Patel was to Nehru, within the BJP’s discourse. The charge: the family had suppressed talent and done India a disservice.
Indeed, Mukherjee brought immense erudition and experience to the table as minister. Short in physical stature but possessing immense political standing, Mukherjee was at heart a Finance Minister, a portfolio he held more than once. His personal interest, however, lay in history, and he has anecdotes from the Second World War on his tips.
Mukherjee was believed to be ambitious, once having purportedly suggested to Rajiv Gandhi that he (Mukherjee) could step into his mother’s shoes as Prime Minister after her death. This, it was believed, finished off his chances to occupy the top post.
Yet, Mukherjee, those close to him say, never really grudged this. He has been a practical politician rather than a romanticist all his life, with politics and books taking up all his time. He is one Indian – those who know him say – who hardly follows cricket.
For the Congress, Mukherjee was not just an experienced minister understanding policy in ways few others would but also a crisis manager of the last resort.
It is said that when the DMK was about to break with the UPA government and the efforts of P Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad to defuse the crisis failed to bear fruit, Mukherjee asked Sonia Gandhi whether he should try to bring M Karunanidhi around. He decided to intervene when his junior minister from the DMK SS Palanimanickam came to him to bid him goodbye, saying that his party had asked ministers to submit their resignations. “You are not going anywhere,” Mukherjee told him before he approached Sonia Gandhi. Once he got her green signal, he is said to have called up Karunanidhi to ask why he did not talk to him. The same day, the DMK put its decision to break with the UPA on hold.
Mukherjee was close to leaders across the political spectrum, be it Karunanidhi or Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav. He also had old relations with corporate houses, and was accused by the opposition of being close to a particular corporate house since the 1980s.
Mukherjee did not get along with his Cabinet colleague Chidambaram, whom he saw an inflexible. During the fast of Anna Hazare at Ramlila Maidan for a Lokpal Bill of his choice, it was said that Chidambaram was thinking of bringing in police to get the precincts vacated at night. But Mukherjee is believed to have stopped him from doing that, perhaps sensing that the public mood was against any such step.
Yet, those who know him well say Mukherjee was not the one to have a deep understanding of the pulse of the masses. He was more an experienced policy hand. He would tell Advani in Parliament in the UPA days that he was the latter’s senior in Parliament, even if Advani was elder to him. Hailing from Bengal, Mukherjee was never a leader of great standing in the state. He cut his teeth in national politics and stayed one of its most erudite faces ever.
For the Modi government, Mukherjee remains one veteran Congress leader who offered legitimacy to the RSS, which has had a wide social base but little elite legitimacy. That Mukherjee has been President of India added to the legitmacy. Many believe that he would not have got the Bharat Ratna, but for this gesture.
A deeply religious man who goes to his village once each year to pray, Mukherjee is indeed second to none when it comes to erudition as a politician. Yet, he did tread where no Congress leader had treaded when he went to the RSS headquarters to address its volunteers in the presence of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.