A suggestion made by Shiva Sena newspaper 'Saamna' in Mumbai immediately after Pranab Mukherjee's address to RSS cadres has caused some debate in political circles. The newspaper said the former president, whose visit made him headline news, can be considered as a consensus prime minister in 2019. There were several interpretations on this suo moto suggestion by a party which has been highly critical of prime minister Narendra Modi, despite being a part of the central and Maharashtra governments ruled by BJP. Some leaders in BJP thought that Sena was hoping for a reduction in BJP's numbers in Lok Sabha, so that Modi can be sidelined as the leader of the NDA. some others thought it was a tongue-in-cheek comment on what is seen as a political decision by Mukherjee.
Mukherjee had hoped the prime ministerial job will come to him due to his seniority and experience in Congress. He was driven out of the Congress in 1985 as leaders close to Rajiv Gandhi thought Mukherjee, the seniormost minister in Indira Gandhi cabinet had declared his ambition soon after her assassination. Though Mukherjee clarified that he had only explained the constitutional position that the seniormost minister will be temporarily prime minister until a new leader is elected, his enemies in Congress felt he had vaulting ambition. Later Rajiv rehabilitated Mukherjee, but when Rajiv himself was assassinated, Mukherjee was not in the zone of consideration. But he got upset in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi declined the prime ministership, and Mukherjee had hoped as the seniormost leader in the party, he would get the big job. But Sonia chose Manmohan Singh instead, and made Mukherjee a number two. The return of UPA with a clear majority in 2009 meant the job remained with Singh, and Mukherjee had to be satisfied with becoming the country's president in 2012.
But this is not the first time that the name of current or former president has made the rounds. When there was a hung parliament in 2004 before UPA and left came together, Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav had suggested a national government headed by then president A P J Abdul Kalam. But there were no takers for the proposal, and soon UPA with outside support of left parties was ready.
Another president himself had entertained hopes of becoming head of a national government. It was R Venkataraman, who was upset at the political turbulence in 1989-1991 when there were two general elections and three prime ministers (V P Singh, Chandrashekar and P V Narasimha Rao). Venkataraman had told political leaders after the fall of the six-month-old Chandrashekhar government that the country needed a national government. Several leaders including Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and V P Singh thought Venkataraman was indirectly promoting himself. But all of them told the president that it was better to keep returning to the people, till a majority government was produced.
However it was a vice president, who actually was given the firm offer of prime minister and Congress president during a crisis, and yet refused. According to K. Natwar Singh, Sonia Gandhi's close adviser at that time, she was shattered by the assassination of her husband in 1991. She was shocked by the demand that she should lead the Congress and then become the prime minister, if the Congress won the postponed Lok Sabha elections. She told Natwar Singh and P N Haksar, former adviser to Indira Gandhi, that the best person to lead the Congress was Shankar Dayal Sharma, who was the vice-president of India at that time. But Sharma, who was not sure how successful he would be, cited health and age as reason for declining the top post. However, this did not prevent him from becoming president in 1992.
The politics is much more fractious now, and Mukherjee has also become a figure of controversy, with his own daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee unhappy with his visit to RSS headquarters in Nagpur. But politics is a game of chance and till the results are declared in next year's general elections, everyone including Mukherjee would have the right to hope to become an accidental prime minister.