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GhoseSpot | Rediscovering Pranab Mukherjee’s pivotal role in Indian democracy through daughter Sharmistha’s lens

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GhoseSpot | Rediscovering Pranab Mukherjee's pivotal role in Indian democracy through daughter Sharmistha's lens

Pranab Mukherjee was arguably the most highly regarded Congressman across party lines in recent times

Sandip Ghose December 19, 2023 14:09:40 IST GhoseSpot | Rediscovering Pranab Mukherjee's pivotal role in Indian democracy through daughter Sharmistha's lens

Despite detractors and jealous peers, Pranab Mukherjee also had trusted friends even within the Congress party

In a consumerist world, books are also marketed like soaps and shampoos. In their eagerness to promote titles publishers often hype the salacious rather than the substantive. Sharmistha Mukherjee’s book on her father, Pranab Mukherjee, written from the heart but with remarkable objectivity and touching candidness runs the risk of becoming a trivia hunter’s goldmine whereas for a student of contemporary politics it is a treasure trove of gems. Right in the preface Sharmistha admits how she was apprehensive about writing a biography until Amitav Ghosh, the celebrated author, advised her to make it her story. So the book is as much of her experiences with her father as it is about his life, which makes it such an endearing read.

Pranab Mukherjee was not a run of the mill politician. History is replete with instances of people from humble calling rising to the top echelons of power. But in post-independence India one does not find many examples of academicians of nondescript rural origins making it big in the world of realpolitik. That is what makes the life and journey of Mukherjee fascinating rather than his five decades long tryst with power and the powerful. Sharmistha brings to life the essential Pranab not just with the sensitivity of a doting daughter but with sharp political instincts that she would have imbibed from her father.

GhoseSpot  Rediscovering Pranab Mukherjees pivotal role in Indian democracy through daughter Sharmisthas lens

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A recently published book by a well-known political journalist is titled How Prime Ministers Decide. Had it not been already taken, it would’ve been the perfect name for Sharmistha’s work. Pranab was the de-facto number two to four of India’s most powerful prime ministers. Of these, by his own admission, his years with Indira Gandhi were the “Golden Period” of his career. With an eye for talent, Indira Gandhi spotted him when was a Member of Parliament for the Bangla Congress. After Bangla Congress merged with the Congress, Indira Gandhi took him under her wings and mentored and tutored him, almost like a stern school teacher, “to become one of the most astute politicians of his generation”. There is an amusing but telling anecdote of how Indira Gandhi chastised him like an errant child after he contested, against her advice, and lost the Lok Sabha election, as had been predicted by her.

The stories surrounding Rajiv Gandhi’s misgivings about Pranab’s intentions ions following Indira Gandhi’s assassination have been recounted far too many times to bear repetition here. But what is more interesting is Pranab’s own assessment of the mistrust that finally led to his ouster from the party consigning him to political wilderness. It is little known that the trigger, or the proverbial last straw as it were, for the expulsion was the letter Pranab had written to Rajiv on the Shah-Bano case wherein he had suggested that “Congress Members (should be) allowed to vote freely”. As per Sharmistha, Pranab felt that “politically it was a blunder for the Congress…… (it) got the ‘minority appeasement’ tag it could never shake-off”. From Sharmistha’s account it seems that Pranab was inclined towards the Uniform Civil Code. One wonders what would have been Pranab’s stand if the UCC was pushed through during his tenure as president.

Like many others Pranab too thought that Rajiv was a victim of the coterie that surrounded him. Many of them were Sonia acolytes. Some of Rajiv’s coterie remains in her circle even today. Would things have panned out differently for Rajiv if he had relied more on seasoned politicians like Pranab – something that Sonia seemed to have learnt during the later UPA terms?

However, decoding the chronology of Sharmistha’s narrative, one can trace a pattern in the insecurity he bred among his peers who in turn influenced his bosses to view him with suspicion. This was easy to understand in the case of Rajiv Gandhi with whom Pranab suffered the same fate many mentees face after the demise or departure of powerful mentors. But, Sharmistha recalls how Pranab nearly missed his cabinet berth in Indira Gandhi’s third term due to the machinations of Sanjay Gandhi groupies. There was an encore of this with PV Narasimha Rao and a subsequent sequel with Manmohan Singh as well towards the end of his second term.

Pranab was arguably the most highly regarded Congressman across party lines in recent times. His relationships with fellow lawmakers like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj were founded on mutual respect, intellectual integrity, and honest communication. This is a trait he had probably learnt from senior parliamentarians like Indrajit Gupta and also under the tutelage of Indira Gandhi. Sharmistha quotes an anecdote from his diary when Indira Gandhi sent him a chit with the noting – “apologise now” after he had lost his cool on Indrajit Gupta during a debate. His equation with Mamata Banerjee was ambivalent, blowing hot and cold like between competing siblings.

But despite detractors and jealous peers, Pranab also had trusted friends even within the party. Santosh Mohan Dev played a role in his rehabilitation in Congress. Pranab was one of the few who continued to see PV Narasimha Rao post his retirement and even advised him on how to stay relevant in politics. Despite their later differences Manmohan Singh and even came for Sharmistha’s book launch which most Congressmen stayed away from.

The review will be incomplete without a mention of Pranab’s infamous temper. He had tendered his resignation several times during his career only to be turned down. Once in a he handed in a paper in a huff to Indira Gandhi – which happened to be his daily “To Do List”. Gandhi, who was indulgent towards Pranab, turned to R Venkatraman and said, “This is a rather strange resignation letter.”

Whether Pranab Mukherjee was the best Prime Minister of India never had is a counterfactual question no one can answer. But he is certainly one personality who had a major contribution in steering the Indian democracy to its present stage most apparent during the final years of the UPA and not the least during his stint as the 13th President of the Indian Republic.

The author is a current affairs commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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