Pranab’s style is a sure winner

There is little doubt that Pranab Mukherjee will be the next president of India. All hurdles on his way to Rashtrapati Bhavan have been cleared and all signs are auspicious; even foes have become friends. Pranab Babu’s long journey from a remote village in West Bengal to the number two in the government and the Congress party’s main troubleshooter has been long and arduous.

His worst time was in 1980 when the Congress, led by Indira Gandhi, had won but Pranab Babu lost. Recall the scene at 24, Akbar Road, the AICC headquarters. 32 years back. A diminutive, crest fallen leader in crumpled dhoti and Kurta stood in queue at the AICC. A crowd of Congressmen had gathered   to receive a triumphant Indira Gandhi at the party headquarters who had vanquished the Janata party in 1980 Lok Sabha elections 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 on a national plane.

During Janata Party rule, when Gandhi was hounded by Janata leaders, Pranab Babu 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.

Gandhi alighted from her car, accepted greetings 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. This correspondent has seen Pranab Babu’s style of functioning since 1975 and known him intimately. 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 fitted 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.

Being out of touch with Pranab Babu since the formation of the UPA government at the centre, I thought he had forgotten me but no; he remembered me by name. Towards the fag end of the Budget session of Parliament, as Pranab Babu was passing through Central hall, I came across him. Promptly I tried to introduce myself. But lo and behold, he stopped looked at me and remarked: ‘You need not introduce yourself, Swarup Sahib. I know you very well.’

‘When can I meet you’, I asked. He replied, ‘Come after the budget session is over.’

Pranab Babu is always available to his friends and well-wishers from media and may readily talk on telephone.

There has been lot of criticism of Pranab Babu’s short temper. True, he is short tempered but only when provoked by stupid or irrelevant questions or questioner persists after he declines to another one.  Cross-examination by the interviewer also annoys him. He cannot stand fools and nincompoops.

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 coincidence 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 ambition to succeed 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 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 gave him the commerce portfolio. He also briefly held the charge of External Affairs. Early in June Pranab Babu’s fate had helped him to get presidential nomination. Left to Sonia Gandhi, she could never have made him the president because of his indispensability. Also she never fully trusted him. As a matter of fact, his
bête noir
, Mamata Banerjee unwittingly helped him.

When Mamata met the Congress President on 12 June, she told her that names under consideration were that of Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari. Mamata rushed to Mulayam Singh and they rejected both Pranab and Ansari and announced their own names that included for president A P J Abdul Kalam.

Next day Mulayam turned volte face and extended support to Pranab, followed by Mayawati and Nitish Kumar. Sonia Gandhi had no option but to fall in line. Virtual split in the NDA on the question of presidential election was her biggest success.
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