By Akhileshwari Anand Raj
Pranab Mukherjee is best known for his tenure as the 13th President of India, a post he held from 2012 to 2017. However, he has had a political career spanning six decades. Mukherjee made his big break in 1969 when Indira Gandhi helped him get elected to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket. He became one of Indira Gandhi’s most trusted aides. He held the posts of Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Leader of the Rajya Sabha and head of the Planning Commission. Finally, Pranab Mukherjee stood for the presidential elections, winning with a 70% electoral college vote.
Mukherjee’s rise in the Congress
The release of his third volume of his political autobiography, The Coalition Years 1996- 2012, was highly anticipated as it covers the important years preceding his presidency. However, the book was very cautiously written and only occasionally does it make disclosures about politics behind the scenes from that turbulent period.
Nevertheless,the book is very lucidly written and provides a great insight into the political and historical perspective of the events of that time. Pranab Mukherjee does reveal that he was a “lone voice” opposing the coalition of Congress with other parties in the 2004 elections. He believed that it would undermine the identity of the party, and states that other senior leaders also had reservations but did not reveal them.
Pranab Mukherjee also denies that, contrary to rumour, he never had any political ambition to become Home Minister or, later, Prime Minister. He even hints that, although he had widespread support for the latter job, he never had any bitterness towards Prime Ministers Singh or Gandhi. However, he does write about his differences with Singh over economics. Despite this, Singh gave him an important position in the cabinet as head of nearly 100 executive groups. For his part Mukherjee writes generously about Gandhi despite their disagreements, saying that they had an easy relationship, and he commends her for her “sterling qualities of leadership.”
The 13th President of India
Pranab Mukherjee was nominated as the presidential candidate for the United Progressive Alliance in June 2012, just days before the election. The choice of Mukherjee to represent the alliance was very easy as the election had already spurred cross-voting in several states by the BJP.
In office, he democratised the position of president by doing away with the title of ‘His Excellency’. As president, Mukherjee dealt with 34 mercy petitions, out of which he rejected 30—including that of Yakub Memon, Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru—and he promulgated 26 ordinances—including the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, which made laws related to sexual offences more stringent. During his last two years in office, he taught students about the history of the country and the dangers of rising terrorism. He also worked to project the Rasthrapthi Bhavan as a premiere tourist destination, leading to an increase in tourist traffic at the site.
Why Pranab Mukherjee never became PM
Being a close aide of Indira Gandhi and a senior member of the Congress, Pranab Mukherjee had believed that he would be the successor to Indira Gandhi after she was assassinated in 1984. Due to clashes with her actual successor, Rajiv Gandhi, Mukherjee formed his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. However, this party merged with the Congress after reaching an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi.
After Rajiv’s assassination, Mukherjee began to play an important role in the Congress again. His position helped him prepare the ascension of Sonia Gandhi to the party’s presidency in 1998, which is why he was again touted as a Prime Minister in waiting. However, many cite his previous break with the party as a source of mistrust from the party leadership. This is likely why it was the unambitious Manmohan Singh rather than Mukherjee who was chosen.
The best Prime Minister who never was
Singh himself has previously admitted that Pranab Mukherjee was more qualified to become Prime Minister in 2004, but Singh also said that Mukherjee “did not have a say in it.” As Prime Minister, Singh was focused more on policy decisions rather than political games, so it would be plausible to conclude that Sonia Gandhi’s stronghold on the government was stronger than it would have been had Mukherjee been given the job.
However, if Pranab Mukherjee had been given a stronger leadership position by the party in 2012—which was a crucial time as the Congress tried to rebuild its image—he may have strengthened the party’s connections with its electorate and the 2014 defeat may not have occurred. Although no more than speculation now, Pranab Mukherjee still represents what could have been for the Congress, and this is what he will be remembered for.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius