- Pranab Mukherjee sends signals he is not a write-off just yet
- He will attend an RSS event next month
- RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat likely to address hundreds of RSS workers
NDTV has spoken to a wide range of politicians across party lines who confirmed that the 82-year-old is playing a significant role in bringing non-Congress, non-BJP leaders together to form an alternative front ahead of 2019. Some of those leaders went as far as to pitch the former president as a potential prime ministerial candidate in 2019. They point to talks that Mr Mukherjee has been having with political leaders who have met him at his official bungalow in Delhi.
It all goes back to a low-key meeting held in Bhubaneswar in January at the home of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the chief of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Mr Patnaik had invited the leaders for the launch of a biography of his father Biju Patnaik. Unlike other high-profile dinners hosted recently by Sonia Gandhi or NCP leader Sharad Pawar, this one was revealed in a tweet showing Pranab Mukherjee, Janata Dal Secular's Deve Gowda, Left leader Sitaram Yechury and BJP veteran LK Advani having lunch with Mr Patnaik.
The chief minister tweeted simply, "It was a great pleasure to have the company."
But sources told NDTV it was one of the first meetings that set the ball rolling on a potential Third Front.
It was great pleasure to have enlightened company of Shri @CitiznMukherjee, Shri HD Deve Gowda, Shri LK Advani & Shri @SitaramYechury at Naveen Niwas. Had wonderful interaction over our much loved #Pakhala & Odia delicacies #PiajaPeetha#SagaBadi#Drumstickfry & famed #Chhenapodapic.twitter.com/GWcpVGwL9t- Naveen Patnaik (@Naveen_Odisha) January 27, 2018
Many others say the starting point was a much earlier meeting at Rashtrapati Bhawan last year when Chief Minister Patnaik had lunch with Pranab Mukherjee and then they dialled another "Third Front" player, Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee.
Since it involves a former president, none of the leaders NDTV spoke to wanted to speak on record. But key leaders in the Congress, BJP, Trinamool and the BJD have confirmed the developments.
"He is very political and he may be the only one with the stature to match Prime Minister Narendra Modi," said a BJD MP. "And he is open to playing a key role as a non-NDA pole position," he added.
Often described as the "prime minister India never had", Mr Mukherjee has documented how he was passed over for the job in 2004 in his book The Coalition Years. He shares that he thought then Congress president Sonia Gandhi would choose him and send Manmohan Singh to Rashtrapati Bhawan (as president).
"I returned with a vague impression that she might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister. I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in the Kaushambi Hills." That didn't happen. But this was not the first let-down in his years in the Congress.
In 2012, when his name was first proposed for President, it was Mamata Banerjee who swung it for him, backed also by the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Significantly, Ms Banerjee along with MPs of other parties including from the Shiv Sena marched to the Rashtrapati Bhavan on 16 November 2016, in a protest against demonetisation.
"It is Pranab Mukherjee who held Bengal politics together for decades and it is because of him that the Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee evolved," said a senior Bengal leader, explaining the bond between Mamata Banerjee and the former president.
A senior BJP minister tracking the developments with interest believes Ms Banerjee's recent overtures to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) of K Chandrasekhara Rao are also backed by Mr Mukherjee. "Whatever Mamata is doing is on behalf of Pranab Mukherjee," he said. "They are trying to create a front that will determine India's future in the next five years. The idea is that one of them will be prime minister."
NDTV tried to get an official comment from his office but they were unavailable.