This Article is From Jul 22, 2012

Pranab Mukherjee nears the finishing line of Rashtrapati Bhavan

Pranab Mukherjee nears the finishing line of Rashtrapati Bhavan
New Delhi: He began his political career in 1969 and has served in every Congress cabinet since Indira Gandhi. He is often referred to as the best Prime Minister India never had. Now, Pranab Mukherjee's sterling, over four-decade-long political journey could reach its peak at Rashtrapati Bhavan, India's top constitutional post, as the counting and declaration of results of the July 19 President poll takes place today. (Special Feature: Pranab Mukherjee - From "village boy" to President-in-waiting)

But it will be a victory hard won for Mr Mukherjee as the race for President proved to be one of the toughest battles in his political career. It began with his nomination itself, which was anything but smooth. The Congress took a long time to decide on Mr Mukherjee, which for some was a flashback to 2007 when Congress President Sonia Gandhi refused to let him go. The official line then was that Mr Mukherjee, as the chief trouble-shooter for the Congress party, was indispensable. (Read: Who is Pranab Mukherjee?)

Once his nomination was announced, what unfolded was a bitter political battle which has never been seen before in a Presidential election. Alliances were divided and even pushed to the brink. Key UPA ally Mamata Banerjee initially refused to support Mr Mukherjee's nomination, daring the Congress to even break the alliance with her party, the Trinamool Congress. Her choice for the office was clear, former President APJ Abdul Kalam, but he chose to not contest with numbers heavily favouring Mr Mukherjee. Ms Banerjee finally came around to pledge her support to Mr Mukherjee - albeit with a "heavy heart".  

There were divisions in the other political camp too. The JD(U) and the Shiv Sena defied the NDA to support Mr Mukherjee, while the rest of the NDA parties propped up former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma as their official candidate.

Even the Left parties were divided, with the CPI(M) and Forward Bloc backing Mr Mukherjee, while the CPI and RSP abstained.

But the political challenges did not end there; just days later Mr Mukherjee's nomination was challenged. The Opposition charged with him holding an office of profit. They argued that he had not resigned from the Indian Statistical Institute till the time he filed his nomination papers. He was even accused of forging his own signature, but he won this battle, with the Returning Officer, throwing out the objection to his candidature.

The attacks, however, did not stop. His rival in the Presidential contest, Mr Sangma, caused a stir when he said that the Rashtrapati Bhavan had become a dumping ground for failures which was a caustic reference to Mr Mukhrjee's last tenure as Finance Minister.

But criticism has never bogged Mr Mukherjee down. The 77-year-old former Finance Minister seems to have inexhaustible reserves of energy. He entered politics five decades ago, and still works till early morning, much beyond his younger colleagues.

In 2009, as he appeared on our show Walk The Talk, we had asked him, "Given the number of Group of Ministers (GoMs) you head, what is the hierarchy of importance in your life, what takes most of your time and attention and thinking time. Is it foreign policy, economy or West Bengal Congress?

"Public issues dominate my life. I have no personal life even though I am a family man. But it has never dominated or encroached. And days together it may happen living under the same roof hardly I see my wife though she is sick. Because sometimes in the morning or late night I normally leave my table, working table, after one in the morning. And before I go to my bedroom I just see, touch her forehead she is in deep sleep," he had said. (Watch: Walk The Talk with Pranab Mukherjee)

Mr Mukherjee's father was a freedom fighter and a member of the Bengal Legislative Council, and while Mr Mukherjee did get a law degree from the Calcutta University and started teaching, it was only a couple of years later that he joined active politics.

In 1969, Mr Mukherjee became a Rajya Sabha member, and even as a fresher, he impressed Indira Gandhi with his speech on nationalisation of banks. She soon realised the value of his political acumen, his fantastic memory and administrative skills, and by 1973, he was a minister in her cabinet.

Not only was he recognised as a successful Finance Minister between 1982-84, he was also Indira Gandhi's trusted lieutenant. A trust, which he mistook as legitimate grounds to claim leadership after her death. When Rajiv Gandhi asked him who takes over after Indira's assassination, Mr Mukherjee reportedly replied, "the senior most minister." That comment, conveying unhealthy ambition to many, not only led to his expulsion, but also remained a sore point in his relationship with the Gandhis. Many felt, it was the reason he was rejected for the President's post in 2007.

If importance was measured by the number of positions one held, no one could compete with him. Out of 183 GoMs formed by the UPA, at least 80 were chaired by Mr Mukherjee. The controversial GoMs dealing with politically sensitive issues like Lokpal and Telengana were always handled by him. Mr Mukherjee has also been the crisis manager with the maximum acceptability with opposition parties.

However, while his popularity among political parties remained unbeatable, there still remained a degree of uneasiness with the top leadership of his own party. Congressmen pointed out how Sonia Gandhi trusted Mr Mukherjee with tricky political situations, but would never entrust him with the Prime Minister's job.

When we had asked him if he felt he got his due from the Congress, or if he felt bad or had a regret that he was overlooked for the post of Prime Minister, he said, "No, not at all. I believe that the party has given me much more than what I have given to the party. The party has trusted the most important thing, once I have told you in my interaction with you earlier. Why should I regret?

"The party President has trusted me, has considered me capable of discharging certain responsibilities, by me alone. That is a great trust. Therefore, the party has trusted me and through the party I have been an MP for almost four decades and it will be more than four decades. I was a minister for 22 years. Therefore, I don't regret. I am rather quite happy and satisfied that the party has given me enough. Rather I have not done that much as what the party has given me."

In the run-up to the Presidential race, Mr Mukherjee met the Congress President several times and indicated his mind very clearly - he had played his political innings for over five decades and was not going to fight another election. And at 77 years old, he couldn't be part of a younger team led by Rahul Gandhi.

But he had to brace for another challenging election, the most prestigious of his career. At the mathematics of it though, it seems the toughest part for him may be over, with around 65 per cent of India's Electoral College in his favour.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with him on the Presidential poll:

NDTV: To that extent Pranabda do you believe that this election is a mere formality?

Pranab Mukherjee: Election is election to my mind.

NDTV: So speaks the veteran politician who never takes things for granted in politics.

Pranab Mukherjee: One should not.

NDTV: It's a walkover isn't it, the way the numbers are stacked up?

Pranab Mukherjee: That's alright, but I do not take it that way, because when an election is contested, an election is to be fought.

With his much vaunted political skills and long experience in government, Mr Mukherjee has often been referred to as the Congress party's man for all seasons, an elder statesman, and a hands-on politician with a no nonsense attitude. Many believe, Mr Mukherjee's tenure as the President of India could well be an eventful one.