Pranab Mukherjee: President who could have been India's PM was a 'true friend' of Bangladesh

That Mukherjee influenced former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to grant Bangladesh a billion dollars, the highest India had then extended to any single country, and that the amount was almost tripled when Hasina-led Bangladesh absorbed it all, is not very well known, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Sep 01, 2020
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Many contributed to Bangladesh’s Liberation War effort in 1971. Then prime minister Indira Gandhi, of course, led India to victory and fought off hostile foreign powers. Former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu was held in high esteem in both countries. But one Indian who was considered emotionally closest to Bangladesh was former president Pranab Mukherjee.

Grieved by Mukherjee’s death on August 31, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called him just that: "a true friend" to Bangladesh and “a guardian-like figure” for her family.

She became “emotional and nostalgic as she reminisced her many memories with him," as per reports from Dhaka, recalling Mukherjee’s "outstanding and unforgettable" contributions to the country's 1971 Liberation War - both as a politician and as the country's well-wisher.”

Sheikh Hasina said: "I will always recall with profound respect his invaluable contributions to our Liberation War," she said, while terming him as a “celebrated politician of the sub-continent.”

She recalled how Mukherjee had always extended his cooperation to her family when they were in exile in India following the August 15, 1975 killing of her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mukherjee and wife Suvra were regular low-profile visitors to Hasina’s home at New Delhi’s Pandara Road for six years in the eighties. 

Soft corner for Bangladesh 

It is significant that Indira Gandhi assigned Mukherjee the task over more experienced ministers and politicos from West Bengal when Hasina and her late husband stayed away from the country after her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination along with most members of her family. It required a hands-on person with empathy and dedication.

That Mukherjee influenced former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to grant Bangladesh a billion dollars, the highest India had then extended to any single country, and that the amount was almost tripled when Hasina-led Bangladesh absorbed it all, is not very well known.

Also unknown is his frustration - a feeling shared by many - at India being unable to respond in equal measure to Hasina’s many security-related measures, including the elimination of anti-India militancy in the Northeast for which Bangladesh’s soil was being used as a springboard. 

Mukherjee lamented in private the failure to reach a pact on Teesta river water sharing between the two countries. It delayed India gaining transit access to its Northeast through Bangladesh until very recently. 

Through this period of almost half a century, Mukherjee would receive the young and old  - from the ruling and opposition parties - from Bangladesh, at home and then in Rashtrapati Bhavan,  who sought his guidance.  That bridging factor is now gone.

On a personal note, Mukherjee was kind enough to meet me whenever possible. He was somehow unaware of my being posted to Bangladesh during the crucial 1974-76 period.  I made some observations at an informal talk in Rashtrapati Bhavan. To my great surprise, he recalled them after several months. I realized that he had not just made a mental note, but also a jotting perhaps, to question me further. That spoke of his diligence. 

President who could not be PM

He attained the highest office as the 13th President (2012 until 2017). There were many presidents before him and many have been India’s prime ministers. But only Mukherjee has been called “the only Prime Minister India never had.” 

His ability and stature were never in doubt. It is said that Bengal has never got its due in India’s public life. There was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose before independence and. after that, Jyoti Basu whom his own party prevented from becoming the prime minister. Pranab Da, as he was fondly called, stopped short of that honour for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, fate pushed him to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President.

He was among the most erudite politicians of his time, a fact acknowledged by both his political peers and officials who worked under him. And he was known to have a phenomenal memory for facts and figures dating back decades,  relating to the government or party. 

Arriving that morning from a long foreign tour, he addressed a conference jointly organized by the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) and the Forum of Financial Writers in 2009. He signalled his  finance ministry officials away and held forth for two hours without any notes on the entire gamut of the Indian economy. 

Indispensability to successive PMs

Perhaps this indispensability in the government and the Congress was an obstacle for him. He realised that he would never get the prime minister’s chair and maybe that is why he aspired for the presidential nomination in 2007.

Indeed, while denying him the presidentship that year, Congress President Sonia Gandhi was supposed to have said that if Mukherjee became the president, who would handle all these responsibilities in the government? Be it the government or the party, he was completely indispensable.  

It is a tribute to his political sagacity that when Sonia Gandhi started discussions about the selection of a presidential candidate in 2012, the Left leaders, whom he had fought politically all those years named him as the most suitable candidate.

In between his being a professor of history at a college in West Bengal to becoming the Union finance minister, Mukherjee had held numerous portfolios that would really need counting. He had handled. besides Finance, Defence, External Affairs, Commerce and at a junior level, Banking, Revenue and much more. 

As a minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh (whom he had once appointed as the Reserve Bank Governor), Mukherjee headed 45 of the 49 Group of Ministers (GOMs) that needed close scrutiny of issues before placing them before the Union Cabinet. 

He was a workaholic. As the commerce and industry minister under Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s, he was reputed to have three sets of stenographers and officials who would keep bringing files for his clearance, take notes and orders he would dictate and still have time for the party work. 

It was then that Indira Gandhi authorized that he presides over the cabinet meeting in her absence. Perhaps, no other union minister under any Indian prime minister has had this position/privilege.

He had his detractors

His long innings in public life, spanning were not without ups and downs. The path was never easy. A Rajya Sabha Member for long, Mukherjee lost in his first attempt at the Lok Sabha election in 1980. Indira Gandhi triumphantly returned to power after her 1977 debacle with a comfortable majority, had no reason to choose someone who had just lost an election. But to everyone’s surprise at the swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, his name was called out and Mukherjee, emerging from one of the back rows, took the oath of office.

He was not short of adversaries. He was with Rajiv Gandhi touring Bengal when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. His detractors spread the word that he had wanted to be the caretaker prime minister, like Gulzarilal Nanda had been when Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri died. Rajiv included him in the cabinet sworn in that day but dropped him after the 1984 elections. 

Mukherjee never cleared this myth till 30 years later when he wrote in his memoirs that he had actually insisted that Rajiv become the prime minister. When Rajiv expressed doubts about his own ability, he assured him that he would have colleagues’ full support and was bound to succeed.

Besides work in the government, Mukherjee did a lot of political management in and outside Parliament. He headed the turbulent, faction-ridden West Bengal Congress. He parleyed with opposition leaders on contentious issues and sought to forge consensus. He was the chief trouble-shooter of the Congress Party. 

With his death, an entire generation of Congressmen and women dedicated to the party has ended. He was the last, if not the only one, who remembered the history of Congress right from 1885 along with all events and their dates.

During Congress Working Committee meetings, he would draft all resolutions. He had learned the constitution of Congress by heart. His knowledge was so in-depth that he could devise his political plans using minute details from it.

To support the replacement of the former prime minister P.V Narasimha Rao with Sitaram Kesari as the Congress president without holding an organisational election, he dug out a provision from the party constitution. Again, to replace Kesari with Sonia Gandhi, he cited another provision from the same rule book. 

Walking-talking encyclopaedia

Mukherjee was a voracious reader. He was a walking-talking encyclopaedia who knew his facts well enough to fox his adversaries. He had a pithy sense of humour and loved engaging his rivals in Parliament and outside in wordy duels. 

A simple man, he loved to smoke a cigar. Then he switched to the smoking pipe and in his last years, gave up smoking altogether. An array of pipes on his working desk were just for show and to keep the old memories alive. 

He was religious but secular. He performed his puja at his simple ancestral home in Birbhum. Essentially a family man, but always busy, he had little time for his wife when she was ailing for long and died in 2015 when he was the president.

As president, he worked with two prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. He stressed on his excellent rapport with Modi. And yet, amidst communal violence and divisive discourse, Mukherjee repeatedly stressed the need for social harmony and for everyone working for an inclusive India. 

Using his words gracefully and carefully, he was critical of the Modi government and opposed the Bharatiya Janta Party's ideology all along. And yet, his visit the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, where he made a speech on India's pluralism, raised eyebrows.

Mukherjee was conferred the Bharat Ratna - the nation's highest honour - in 2019 when political circles noted that the honour was given to him - a lifelong Congressman - by a BJP government. When asked if he did not find it ironic, he said that as president, he had given it to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a BJP leader, in May 2015. 

This message, for one and all,  was the need for India to be a harmonious, inclusive and pluralist society, despite political and ideological differences between individuals and organisations. 

(The writer is  President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)