There were moments- at least three have been widely discussed- when most of us felt he lost the race to become the Prime Minister by a whisker. And there were moments when one felt he received way more than what he would have set out to accomplish in politics.
But most of us would agree that former President Pranab Mukherjee remained one of the most successful politician that this country witnessed, with followers cutting across political lines.
Starting from his entry into the Rajya Sabha in 1969 to holding key portfolios like finance, commerce and external affairs in the union cabinet to finally becoming the President; his has been one of the most rewarding political journeys. And being awarded the Bharat Ratna was a crowning glory of sorts.
In many ways, he was a trend setter. For decades, and with successive Prime Ministers, he remained the de facto number two in the government and a powerful voice within his party, the Congress, despite not winning a Lok Sabha seat. In fact, he won his first Lok Sabha election after spending nearly four decades in politics.
In that sense, he remained the quintessential drawing room politician, considered a key political strategist sans mass base, who influenced his party's destiny like no one else did before him.
And he was one of the early politicians to have realised the worth of maintaining very cordial relations with powerful captains of industry. In an era marked by menacing rise of money power in electoral politics, this has become one of the key survival traits now.
He courted controversies, took some questionable decisions (the decision to tax companies retrospectively that hurt the telecom sector remains one of them), and perhaps allowed his ambitions to get the better of him sometimes. But he never lost relevance as a foremost politician for more than five decades, except for a period of two years.
A series of coincidences resulted in his expulsion from the Congress in April 1986, months after Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. There was a rumour that Pranab Mukherjee had conspired to become the Prime Minister himself after the brutal assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
There was also a whisper campaign that he was behind the then Congress working president's tussle with PM Rajiv Gandhi. Mukherjee was first dropped from the Congress Working Committee and subsequently from the party.
While he did make a comeback to the Congress two years later after a failed attempt to launch a party of his own, he could never manage to fully win the confidence of Rajiv Gandhi. Is that the reason why Manmohan Singh was preferred over him when it came to lead the UPA government in 2004? There are reports that both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi put their weight behind Manmohan Singh.
A brief period of wilderness aside, how did Mukherjee manage to stay in the limelight for all these years? I think a combination of factors- his people's skills, his gift to sense what is to follow before others, and his commitment to the politics of centrism- helped him achieve the rare feat.
I met him thrice- once when he was out of power during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years at the helm and twice when he was all powerful minister during the UPA-I. I can barely recall the kind of conversation we had. What I clearly remember, though, is his remarkable trait of making us feel very important.
He would seldom give us scoop or share information that would make big headlines. But he would calm us down and listen to us as if we had so much knowledge to share with him. He would make sure to get our feedback on his political and administrative decisions.
We would often marvel at his people's skills. He would come across as a caring guardian who did not harbour ill-will for anyone. He could be tough, lose his temper sometimes and would still win confidence of all those who interacted with him. I think his excellent people's skills helped him sail through the rough and tumble of politics.
But that was not enough. What set him apart from the rest was his unwavering commitment to the politics of centrism. If his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha on the nationalisation of banks, way back in 1969, (incidentally that speech helped him get close to the then all powerful leader Indira Gandhi) gave the impression of his left leanings, his actions as the finance minister in multiple terms presented him as a reformer and therefore a votary of different persuasion.
Perhaps he knew more than anyone else that the politics of centrism alone can take care of the aspirations of diverse groups in the country. And he was perhaps convinced that this brand of politics was best suited for democracy.
Such an approach entailed abandoning rigidities and embracing dialogue, even with groups having radically different world views. That is the reason perhaps why he chose to participate in an RSS event at Nagpur.
While commenting on Pranab Mukherjee's Nagpur visit, I had written earlier that "the act of acceptance was a bold move. Some would say a very controversial one as well. For a lifelong Congressman with a strong legacy to protect, it needed courage on the part of former President Pranab Mukherjee to agree to an invitation from a host, he clearly knew, does not subscribe to his publicly stated worldview."
By delivering a stinging speech, he had the option to become an Albert Camus. But like an ambivalent and timid Congressman, he chose a middle path of offending none and pleasing all.
"Camus, an atheist and an acclaimed French philosopher, was once invited to address Christians at the Dominican Monastery. Camus, like Pranab Da, knew what he was getting into. But unlike Pranab, Camus chose to remain direct and forthright."
In terms of optics, the visit and the speech seemed like an aberration, an avoidable occurrence in Mukherjee's long and very successful political journey. However, if viewed in the context of his commitment to the politics of centrism, he had a point to make.
Isn't dialogue with all the foundation of politics of centrism? Hope Pranab Mukherjee's legacy of initiating and continuing dialogue persists for years to come. That will be our real tribute to him.
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