By Harihar Swarup
A diminutive, crest fallen leader in crumpled dhoti and Kurta stood in queue at the AICC , the Congress headquarter at 24, Akbar Road, 32 years back . A crowd of Congressmen had gathered at the AICC to receive a triumphant Indira Gandhi who had vanquished the Janata party in 1980 Lok Sabha election and restored her lost glory. The crest fallen leader was Pranab Mukherjee; he had lost the Lok Sabha election from Bolepur constituency of West Bengal while his party had secured a resounding victory.
During emergency, when Mrs. Gandhi was hounded by Janata party leaders, Pranab Babu (at that time nobody including this correspondent called him Dada) stood by her like a rock. During Emergency, he was her Finance and Revenue Minister and a confidant. But in 1980, he was a defeated leader.
Mrs Gandhi alighted from her car, accepted greeting of party men standing in the queue one by one, stopped near Pranab Babu and had a word with him. His political career, which looked doomed, took a new turn within 24 hours; Pranab Babu was inducted in her cabinet and given the portfolio of commerce. She got him elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat, far, far away from his home state. He was later made the Finance Minister and remained number two in Mrs Gandhi’s government till she was assassinated in October, 1984.
The Bengali Babu who stood in crumpled Kurta in front of the AICC 32 years back has now been steadily getting support for the President’s office due in June end. Besides Congress allies in the UPA, others from NDA are rallying round him. Amazingly, Pranab Babu’s own party, the Congress, has yet to make a choice for the Presidential nominee. Obviously, the Congress leadership has to choose between him and the Vice-President Hamid Ansari and the decision is not easy.
This correspondent has seen Pranab Babu’s style of functioning since 1975. He has a phenomenal memory, even remembering noting on the files made years back. He reels out facts and figures, as if, a computer is filled in his mind. The late P C Sethi and N D Tiwari too had such fantastic memory. Pranab Babu considers C. Subramaniam, the father of the green revolution, as his ‘guru’ who taught him the first lesson in administration. Pranab Babu was his junior minister.
Look at the fantastic performance of the Bengali Babu now. He runs the UPA government virtually single-handed, resolving serious differences through groups of ministers, usually headed by him. Politically also all the trouble shooting is done by him; talking to estranged allies in the UPA and mollifying the opposition parties. Some one described him as one-man, fire-fighting engine; wherever there is a fire, there is Pranab Babu.
Pranab Babu committed the grave error by laying his claim to the Prime Ministerial chair, being number two in the government, hours after assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. It was rather a co-incidence that he happened to be in Calcutta that fateful day and, incidentally, Rajiv Gandhi too was there. There were several conflicting stories about conversation between him and Rajiv on flight back to Delhi. There was grief all around. He had reportedly told a virtually shattered Rajiv that the established procedure was that the senior most minister in the outgoing cabinet is sworn-in as the interim Prime Minister so that the Parliamentary Party could elect a new leader. Though Pranab Babu was only stating a procedure, it was interpreted as his own ambition to succeed Mrs. Gandhi.
On landing in Delhi Rajiv Gandhi was sworn-in the Prime Minister but he retained his mother’s Council of Ministers. Following December 1984 election, Rajiv got biggest-ever majority in the Lok Sabha. Pranab Babu was not included in his new government. Evidently, piqued at his exclusion, he snapped his ties with the Congress and formed his own party in West Bengal.
This was, obviously, a grave miscalculation; the party did not make much headway and Pranab Babu was in wilderness. A gracious Rajiv Gandhi brought him back in the Congress and made him the AICC spokesman. After V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar interlude, Rajiv was assassinated and P V Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister. Shrewd and foresighted as he was, PV had known the utility of Pranab Babu. The PM inducted him in his ministry and made him Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. He also briefly held the charge of External Affairs.
The Congress was defeated in 1996 and remained out of power for eight years. When UPA-I government was formed Dr. Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister and Pranab Babu became number two and emerged as all purpose man in UPA-II. The question being asked is whether he would give all the clout that he enjoys and accept the ceremonial post of the President? He may opt for the second if the party so decides. Pranab Babu was born in a middleclass family of freedom fighters in rural Bengal in 1936. His father, Damodar Ranjan Mukherjee was frequently shuttling between jail and home. The family could barely make hand-to-mouth existence. There was time when Pranab Babu had to walk few miles to go to nearest school. (IPA Service)