India’s 13th President Pranab Mukherjee passed away on Monday evening at the age of 84 – 22 days after he was admitted to the Army Hospital (Research and Referral) in New Delhi following an emergency operation for a clot in the brain from which he never recovered. His death marks the end of an era, just not in Congress but in the entire Indian political landscape. One of the rare politicians who had the courage and conciseness to ‘call a spade a spade’.
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited his residence and paid their last respects to a leader whose political career could have been entirely different had he chosen to be in a different party, a party that did acknowledge talent and not only mollycoddled those with a Gandhi surname.
His death serves a grim reminder that even the most endowed individuals in Congress cannot climb up the ladder of power and reach the pinnacle because a single-family, since the time of dawn has jammed the power routes for any Non-Gandhian to take the centre-stage.
Pranab Mukherjee and several Congress leaders have said it out loud that there were instances where it felt pre-ordained that Pranab would become the Prime Minister but unfortunately, it never led to fruition.
In his book “The Coalition Years”, Mukherjee acknowledged that he had hoped to get the post in May 2004 after then Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself declined the position.
Former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid had also noted in his autobiography, “The selection of Dr Manmohan Singh over Pranab Mukherjee (then the seniormost Congress leader) came as a surprise not only to the Congress but also to outsiders.”
The first opportunity came in 1984 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Pranab was her number Two in the cabinet and most political pundits had predicted that it was time for the Kolkata born leader to command the PM post or atleast steer the country till the next elections. There were precedents in history. Gulzarilal Nanda had twice functioned as a stop-gap after the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.
However, Rajiv Gandhi who had some animosity with Pranab didn’t allow the latter to lay his hands on the PM chair. Pranab da was not even included in the small emergency cabinet Rajiv formed right after he was sworn in and after Rajiv’s landslide victory that winter, Mukherjee was told that there was no need for him in Delhi. He was sent to Bengal, later sacked from his post
Mukherjee stayed away from Congress for nearly five years and he went on to form his own political party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. When Rajiv Gandhi wanted him desperately to salvage the wrecking ship of Congress, Pranab Mukherjee, being a man of class, chose to come back despite the differences.
However, the power went to PV Narsimha Rao in 1991 and Pranab was again given the cold-shoulder. A similar fate ensued when UPA came to power in 2004 and 2009.
It was a shrewd Sonia Gandhi who played an elaborate power-play to ensure that Pranab didn’t ascend to the PM post in 2004. When many though Manmohan Singh will not get a second term, Sonia Gandhi and family again called in their veto-rights and ensured that the puppet PM was installed in New Delhi. And what happened in Manmohan Singh’s second tenure is probably the reason Congress is constantly hitting new lows and getting decimated by the Modi wave.
One only wonders, what would have happened if Pranab Mukherjee was made the PM post-2009 elections.
Mukherjee gave his blood and sweat to Congress and yet the same party in hushed tones called out the leader when he visited the RSS headquarters in Nagpur to deliver the valedictory speech.
In 2019, when he was conferred India’s highest civilian honor Bharat Ratna by the BJP government, a similar debate had ensued.
Gandhis and their love for top party positions and bureaucratic power knows no limits. The intrinsic love for the throne is the reason Congress is falling like a pack of cards off late. It lost a strong, young, and charismatic leader in Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh and nearly lost Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan.
However, the party seems to look the other way whenever the Gandhi family and its inconspicuous power is questioned. Sonia Gandhi being made the interim President of Congress yet again, being a case in point.
A story of what ifs and what if nots for Pranab da who could have had the PM post to his name on three separate occasions, had the Congress party risen from its stupor of Gandhi love.