From Union Finance Ministry to Political Oblivion to being the first Bengali President, the ‘Chanakya’ of Indian politics had tasted it all.
Despite being the first citizen of the country, Pranab Mukherjee, more commonly known as Pranab da, never missed Durga Puja at his ancestral home in Birbhum.
Mukherjee who adorned the highest citadel of politics– President of India had a modest beginning. Deeply tied to his roots, he used to make it a point to be at Mirati village in Murshidabad district every year to take part in the four-day rituals, the Durga Puja had a ‘social dimension’ for him.
“I want to avail this opportunity to be with the people of my area,” Mukherjee always said during his visit to his native village.
On several occasions he was heard saying that the ‘Chandi Path’ he did during the Puja days gave him courage and strength to fight all odds round the year.
Born into a Bengali Brahmin family, Mukherjee studied in Kirnahar Shib Chandra High School and graduated from Suri Vidyasagar College in Birbhum. After completion of his education Mukherjee worked as an upper-division Clerk in the Office of Deputy Accountant-General (Post and Telegraph) in Kolkata.
In 1963 he became Lecturer of Political Science at Vidyasagar College and also took up a job as a journalist with the ‘Desher Dak’.
85-year-old Pranab Mukherjee had a long political career and began his journey with Ajoy Mukherjee’s Bangla Congress. In 1969, he became a member of Rajya Sabha as the representative of the Bangla Congress that was formed on May 1, 1966. Later, he caught Indira Gandhi’s eye and became the part of National Congress.
A quintessential Congressman for five decades, the seven-time parliamentarian’s first stop in Delhi was the Rajya Sabha in 1969, the House that re-elected him four more times before he won his first Lok Sabha election from Bengal’s Jangipur in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009.
Politicians these days don’t think twice before defecting to another political party, forgetting the ideology of their root party. Mukherjee is one of the few politicians who started and ended his political career with the Congress.
Despite several political turmoil within the party Mukherjee was forced to leave the Indian National Congress (INC) many a times and even if he started a new party, the affinity was always with the Congress, be it joining the Bangla Congress or starting Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress (RSC).
Since then Pranab Mukherjee was under the benign eye of Indira Gandhi and gradually became her favourite. What happened following the merger of the Bangla Congress with the Congress is now history. He was omnipresent in the Congress party, be it the era of P.V. Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh.
Pranab Mukherjee was sidelined from the INC following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Although Mukherjee was much more experienced in politics than Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, it was Rajiv who gained control.
Mukherjee lost his position in the cabinet and was sent to manage the regional West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee. He was considered to be Indira’s likely successor and, siding with those within his party who aligned themselves against Rajiv Gandhi.
In 1986 Mukherjee founded another party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, in West Bengal. The RSC and INC merged three years later after reaching a compromise with Rajiv Gandhi.
More than a Bengali from Bengal, many regarded him as a Hindu Brahmin. He raised eyebrows when he attended a function of the RSS but there also he highlighted the importance of pluralism and tolerance. Clearly, while dealing with the BJPs Hindutva policy, Mukherjee’s characteristics remained composite in nature and involved unity amongst the diversity in religion. He always represented India’s variety and diversity.
During the turbulent days of Bengal politics, in 1967, the first United Front government came to power in Bengal. Ajoy Mukherjee was the Chief Minister and the left Front’s Jyoti Basu became the Deputy CM. Soon after this alliance of Congress with the Left Front, the bonhomie between the two parties continued and Mukherjee too was extremely close to Jyoti Basu.
After spending several years in political oblivion the Bharat Ratna politician returned to limelight in 1991, when Rao appointed Mukherjee as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. Mukherjee later took up the role of External Affairs Minister from 1995 to 1996 in Rao’s Cabinet. In 2000, he was appointed President of the West Bengal Congress: a post he went on to hold until his resignation in 2010.
Apart from his political life, Mukherjee was extremely close to Bengali literature. Rabindranath Tagore, Tarashankar, Bhibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay were among his favourite authors.
Not only an avid reader, Mukherjee has also penned several books. His books, ‘The Dramatic Decade- The Indira Gandhi years’, ‘The Turbulent Years’, ‘The coalition Years’ won the hearts of many Bengalis.
Through his work, be it in politics or literature, the Bengali hearts will always miss their Pranab da and his ‘Chandi Path’ every year.
With inputs from senior journalist Anirban Chakrabarti