Addressing a public rally in Kolkata the other day, Narendra Modi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, said that Pranab Mukherjee was twice denied the prime ministry.
Without doubt, the claim was rooted in the factual history of the Republic. Without doubt, Modi, the consummate politician that he is, was trying to evoke the regional Bengali pride. Speaking the language that the audience would like to hear is the first rule of a popular leader. Modi was working the crowd. But his claim was meant as much to keep Mukherjee, who is now the Head of the Republic, in good humour, as it was to discomfit the Congress Party. In effect, Modi recalled the time when Mukherjee was the seniormost member of the Indira Gandhi Cabinet. Upon her assassination in October 1984, by established practice he ought to have been called to head the caretaker government. Even Mukherjee himself referred to that tradition, an act which annoyed the Gandhi durbar so much that he was not even included in the government hastily assembled by Rajiv Gandhi by short- circuiting constitutional procedures. A sidelined Mukherjee felt obliged to leave the Congress and to float his own party.
That it proved a nonstarter was not surprising; soon he returned to the mother party.
But the seeds of distrust were sown in the minds of the Gandhi family by that small episode in Mukherjee’s career, which revealed that he too was not above harbouring prime ministerial ambitions, a crime in a familycontrolled organisation. ears later, it would find expression in Sonia Gandhi’s decision not to hand over the keys to the government in his hands, easily the most experienced and skillful politician in the entire Congress Party. Instead, she chose a non- traditional politician as prime minister. Manmohan Singh’s strength was that he pretended not to have any ambition, while doing everything to retain his high position and to try for the still higher one. Sonia Gandhi found Singh unthreatening, someone who could be relied upon to keep the chair warm for her son as and when the latter was ready to claim his rightful ‘ gaddi.’ Mukherjee, on the other hand, had to reconcile himself to working under Singh. He was competent as a minister, but when it was time for the presidential poll, he again displayed his wonted skills as a politician, virtually forcing the hand of Sonia Gandhi to accept his candidature for the highest office in the land. And that is where Mukherjee is ensconced comfortably. As the President, he could play a crucial role in government formation, especially if the Lok Sabha verdict turns out to be badly fragmented, as is most likely. The role of the President could be crucial in such an eventuality. Therefore, it is wrong to suggest that Modi should have refrained from recalling a recent fact from the history of the Republic. He did well to remind the nation that personal whimsy and preferences play a vital role in shaping the careers of nations, as well as individuals.
Mukherjee was a victim of the personal likes and dislikes of the Gandhi family. If merit alone were to be the criterion, he ought to have been the prime minister in 2004. And we have no doubt in our minds that he would have led the government far more competently and wisely than has been the case under Manmohan Singh. The saving grace is that the benefit of his vast experience and wisdom will be available to the nation at a time when it finds itself at a crossroads due to the rank misgovernance of the UPA. He is of course no rubber- stamp President like his predecessor, Pratibha Patil, whose chief concern as the tenant of Rashtrapati Bhawan for five years, seemed to be to enjoy the trappings of the high office along with her extended family. She was easily the most non- descript President that the nation has had. On the other hand, Mukherjee might go down as one of the shrewdest in the short history of the Republic.