Tribute | Pranab, the ultimate Indira loyalist who worked with three generations of Gandhis

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In 1991, Pranab Mukherjee returned to the heart of New Delhi after living in a South Delhi suburb for four years, without even being a parliament member.

His rehabilitation in the Congress took place when the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao appointed Pranab as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission with a cabinet rank.

An official of the Housing Ministry hesitantly offered House No. 13 on Talkatora road and offered to renumber it as 12A since 13 was considered an unlucky number. Mukherjee said all numbers were fine for him and he will stay in House No. 13.

But Pranab sought from the ministry stock an official portrait of Indira Gandhi issued to all offices in Delhi when she was the prime minister.

Indira had passed away seven years ago.

But officials found the portrait and it occupied a prominent place in House No. 13, later in Mukherjee's office in Rashtrapati Bhavan, and then in his retirement bungalow, No. 10, Rajaji Marg.

For Pranab, Indira was the leader whom he revered. She was his inspiration in politics and governance.

He had worked with other Gandhi family members as well as prime ministers and many Congress presidents.

Pranab, the ultimate Indira loyalist who worked with three generations of Gandhis
(From left) Congress leaders A K Antony, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee. File photo

In half a century, he worked with three generations of the Gandhi family from Indira, her sons Rajiv and Sanjay, daughter-in-law Sonia and grandson Rahul.

Among them, he had a tense relationship with Rajiv Gandhi, who suspected Pranab had prime ministerial ambitions. Rajiv expelled Pranab but later on brought him back to the Congress fold.

Sonia, who controlled the Congress for two decades and the central government for ten years, chose Pranab as a key cabinet minister and later on as President, but he was not her choice for the prime minister's post.

It was Indira who hand-picked him, for being the young strategist who gave a political shock in 1969 to her fierce critic and Congress stalwart Atulya Ghosh. Pranab, a member of regional party Bangladesh Congress, had been the election agent of V K Krishna Menon, who had defeated Ghosh, the Congress strongman of West Bengal since independence.

Mukherjee, a 33-year-old college lecturer, was chosen to become a Rajya Sabha member by Indira. Thus Delhi became his permanent home. He was the ultimate loyalist whom she kept in her core team, as she balanced the conservative heavyweights like Shankar Dayal Sharma, C Subramanian, Jagjivan Ram and Swatantra Singh on one side and leftists and socialists like Chandra Shekhar, Ashok Mehta, Mohan Kumaramangalam, H N Bahuguna and Chandrajit Yadav on the other side.

Mukherjee did not identify with any ideological camp and concentrated on economic issues.

Acknowledging his incredible memory, ability to work hard, draftsmanship and command over economics, Indira made him a deputy minister in 1973, just four years after entering Parliament.

As the license permit Raj took root under Indira's leftist tilt, he was first put in charge of the industrial development portfolio and then in shipping and transport ministry.

Indira and her leftist supporters were angry with big businessmen of the time, most of whom had been affected by nationalization of banks, insurance, shipping and other core economic areas.

While the ideologues made fiery speeches, Indira entrusted Pranab to get a new set of entrepreneurs and favoured them with licenses and permits so that they would support the Congress. Big business houses were supporting rightist forces led by Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party.

By then, her second son Sanjay was an influential presence in the Prime Minister's house and new businessmen flocked to him.

When Indira imposed emergency in 1975, finance minister C Subramaniam was told his minister of state Pranab would directly handle the critical departments of revenue and banking.

The opposition charged that Pranab was manipulating the rules of the government to carry on a political agenda.

With Indira out of power the Congress facing another split in 1978, many senior leaders flocked to the other faction led by Andhra veteran Brahmananda Reddy. Undeterred by the pressure tactics of Morarji Desai government, Pranab stood by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi.

After the split, he became a member of the party's working committee and the parliamentary board.

When Indira rode back to power in 1980 on an anti-Janata wave, Pranab was made a cabinet minister.

But his desire to head the finance ministry was not granted. Instead Indira chose R. Venkataraman, who had been responsible for the party's success in Tamil Nadu.

Pranab, though, was given by the key commerce portfolio.

The death of Sanjay Gandhi in an plane accident in June that year triggered his elder brother Rajiv's political foray.

Rajiv sidelined most of Sanjay's cronies and brought his own team.

But Pranab was doing well as Indira relied more on him in government.

When two senior ministers -- Zail Singh and Venkataraman -- were chosen to become the President and the Vice President in 1982, Pranab became the finance minister and also the number two in the cabinet.

He was also the party's leader in Rajya Sabha. He enjoyed Indira's total confidence, but also ignored the rising clout of Rajiv and Indira's nephew Arun Nehru.

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A corporate executive, Nehru had interests in business circles but Pranab did not consult him.

His own short temper and pressures of multiple responsibilities meant he had rubbed the Rajiv brigade the wrong way.

When Indira was assassinated by her bodyguards, it was a shock for Pranab.

Even as president Zail Singh was rushing back from a foreign visit, Mukherjee was asked who will be next prime minister.

What he said was that as per the constitution there should be a prime minister.

When a prime minister dies in office, the president swears in the number two as it happened when Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri died in 1964 and 1966.

Rajiv and majority of congress MPs thought Pranab had declared his candidature for the PM's post.

Pranab explained the number two would be interim prime minister until the party elected a full prime minister.

But Rajiv supporters, who had their own reservations about Zail Singh, insisted the president should swear in Rajiv as PM. Mukherjee continued as finance minister. But he had lost his anchor and patron -- Indira.

And then, his foes ganged up, telling young Rajiv to be wary of Pranab.

When Rajiv swept the election on the sympathy wave within three months after becoming prime minister, Mukherjee was left in the cold.

Pranab was not even made a minister and he became persona non grata in the power circles, along with former Karnataka Chief Minister R. Gundu Rao and others perceived to be close to Sanjay.

In 1986, they met at Bangalore's Lal Bagh – where the 1969 Congress split happened -- to form the Rashtriya Samajwadi Party.

Next year, the party lost the assembly elections in West Bengal and a disillusioned Pranab wanted to get back to the Congress.

He had well wishers like Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri as well as many bureaucrats and industrialists. Coincidentally, Rajiv was under siege as his hand- picked finance minister V P Singh had launched a corruption probe, Arun Nehru had fallen out and there were rebellions in the Congress.

In this scenario, Rajiv welcomed back Pranab and Gundu Rao to the Congress.

After Rajiv lost power in 1989, Mukherjee was part of Rajiv's core team in the party.

But he could return to the cabinet only in 1995 as external affairs minister. His favourite portfolio of finance was with Manmohan Singh, who was also the leader of the Rajya Sabha.

Rao's successor Kesari treated Pranab well but by then it was clear that Sonia was ready to enter the Congress.

Among the senior leaders she relied on was Pranab, who was given important assignments.

As she was new to Parliament, Mukherjee along with Manmohan Singh, Shivraj Patil, Madhavrao Scindia and Ghulam Nabi Azad, was in her core team.

He was entrusted with building consensus for key decisions like the Panchmarhi declaration on alliances and coalition politics.

For Sonia, Pranav's intelligence, institutional memory, consensus building abilities and organizational network provided useful.

He also enjoyed Sonia's support in dealing with other opposition parties during the prime ministership of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

But during that spell in opposition, she worked even more closely with Manmohan Singh who was leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha.

As she was opposition leader in Lok Sabha, they jointly attended many meetings called by the government.

Sonia's trust in the integrity of Manmohan Singh was equal to her similar confidence in A K Antony, often called her conscience keeper.

But Singh had a reputation for reforms and administrative work not only in India but globally. Though Pranab was disappointed that Sonia chose Singh as the prime minister, he made himself useful in government and party.

At that time, Rahul too entered politics and was building his own relationships beyond his mother's team.

Pranab handled sensitive assignments, but even as his importance increased, there was a feeling during 2011-12 that he was steering the economy in his own way. However, suggestions that Pranab should be made president in 2012 was not easily accepted by Sonia first.

But she realized that his candidature would be widely welcomed by opposition parties and gave her approval. As the Congress Working Committee bid farewell to him from active politics, Pranab showered praises on late Indira Gandhi. She had nurtured him as a national politician and he had become an institution himself. And her photograph was his talisman, which even made the Number 13 residence shower him luck.

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