The former President of India Pranab Mukherjee who passed away in Delhi on the August 2020 was one of India’s most admired politicians whose political career spanned over five decades during which time he held several vital portfolios in the Union Cabinet. The quintessential Bengali, Mukherjee was born on 11 December 1935 in a freedom fighter’s family. His keen interest in academics led to his acquiring a post graduate degree in Political Science and a Degree in Law (LLB) as well from the University of Calcutta. Before plunging headlong into politics, he worked as a clerk in a government office and then as a lecturer in a Kolkata college (then Calcutta) and also briefly as a journalist in a Bengali daily. His baptism into politics was at the instance of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who sent him to the Rajya Sabha in 1969. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha a record six times and served as the leader of the House from 1980-86. He won his first Lok Sabha election in 2004.
Pranab Mukherjee holds the distinction of being the only President to have handled the vital portfolios of Finance, Defence, External Affairs and Commerce at varying points of time in his long and illustrious career. His stints as Finance Minister from 1982-1984 and 2009-2012, Defence (2004-2006), External Affairs (2006-2009) were all highly successful and his ascent from a junior minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet in the 1970s was meteoric. The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 signaled a decline in the political fortunes of Pranab Mukherjee as Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded his mother as the PM never forged a good equation with the Congress veteran. Pranab da as he was fondly addressed was even expelled from the Congress in 1986 for six years and went on to form his own outfit, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress which however fared poorly at the hustings and eventually went into oblivion.
Pranab Mukherjee was a frontrunner for the PM’s post after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 but as in 1984, the honour proved elusive and it was the dark horse P V Narasimha Rao who emerged as the Congress party’s choice for the post. Ex- Prime Minister P.V. Narsimha Rao however was instrumental in resurrecting Pranab da`s political career and he was appointed as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in 1991 and later as External Affairs minister in 1995. He had the satisfaction of heading a maximum number of government committees and at one point was the Chairman of as many as 56 committees of Groups of Ministers (GOM) and in his stewardship of these committees he brought to bear his vast knowledge of parliamentary procedures and expertise acquired over the years thanks to his having a ringside view of the functioning of various governments.
Pranab da was the Presidential candidate of the UPA in 2012 and he became the country’s 13th President. His five year tenure as President was largely inconsequential and his relationship with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won the elections in 2014 with a massive mandate was cordial. The former President was blessed with a phenomenal memory and as a cabinet minister he would reel off facts and figures off the cuff at meetings stunning attendees and his own official colleagues alike. He was also hailed for his razor sharp mind, quick decision making and for his innate ability to build consensus and ensure effective crisis management.
The various distinctions that came his way included the recognition as the Best Finance Minister in the World conferred on him by Euromoney. He was also the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan (2008) awarded by the Government of India but the crowning honour was the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour that was bestowed on him by the NDA government in 2019. He was also a prolific writer and authored several books that were all bestsellers. A true patriot and a mentor to many aspiring politicians, Mukherjee cultivated friendships across political lines and his passing was mourned by one and all.