New Delhi: He has walked the corridors of power for almost 40 years. It's a journey which has ensured that today Pranab Mukherjee has friends in every party and it's the one advantage which he is counting on as he prepares to become India's next President.
"He represents unique repository of the history of our party who sees him as part of the landscape. He inspires like a teacher, friend, a philosopher, and guide. We can't get anything more than that," says Union Minister Salman Khurshid.
Today, from Left to Right, Pranabda as he is known, has an unparalleled capacity to network and reach out to opponents, treating them as political adversaries, but never as enemies.
"The most special thing about Pranab Mukherjee is that he is the longest serving members of the Indian Parliament. He has worked with two generations of leaders. There may be a lot of these chief ministers today or minister today who have grown up calling him uncle," Left leader Sitaram Yechury said.
A good example of Pranabda's willingness to go the extra mile to cross the political divide came when he was the chief guest at the CNN-IBN Indian of the Year awards in 2010. At a time when parliament was being repeatedly adjourned over the 2G scam, Pranab made an attempt to break the impasse by reaching out from the stage to the BJP president Nitin Gadkari.
"If they (BJP) assure that there will be a debate. I'm ready to call a special session of the Parliament," he had said.
Pranab Mukherjee learnt the art of politics from the most astute practioner of real politics, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was Indira who noticed Pranab Mukherjee's skills in administration making him a minister for the first time in 1973. During the dark emergency years, Mukherjee stood by Indira. And it led to questions being raised over his role when the Shah commission inquired into the emergency period.
"I don't think that the Pranab Mukherjee's role in the emergency can be seen as a blot on his career today. When you think of the emergency the names that come to your mind apart from Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi are BC Shukla, Bansilal, Jagmohan and Pranab was a junior minister and the fact that he was the Indira Gandhi loyalist has actually helped him in his career. If Pranab Mukherjee had not been an Indira Gandhi loyalist and not echoed her position in the Shah Commission he would not have had the career that he did subsequently. But the main reason I think in public memory if there are controversies regarding Mukherjee, it is to do with the later stage of his career," says veteran journalist Manini Chatterjee.
Many of his critics accused him of favoring the reliance group and of building up a strong relationship with Dhirubhai Ambani. However, his critics couldn't ignore his growing importance within the government.
Ironically, Indira's assassination in 1984 began the darkest phase in Pranab's political career. Accused of conspiring to be the prime minister, he fell out with Rajiv Gandhi, and had to leave the Congress in 1985. It was a period of exile which perhaps made him more cautious when he returned as deputy chairman of the planning commission under Narasimha Rao in 1991. What did not change though was his capacity for hard work and his immense knowledge of political administrative systems.
Pranab Mukherjee was a chief trouble shooter of the Congress, always available during crisis times.
When the Congress returned to power in 2004, Mukherjee was ideally placed as a consensus builder to lead a coalition government. He had just won his first Lok Sabha election from West Bengal and finally seemed to be ready for prime ministership. However, Sonia Gandhi preferred a more trusted Manmohan Singh, leaving Pranab once again pushed into a Number 2 slot. He was expected to handle the political fallout of all difficult decisions. The Indo-US nuclear deal was a classic example where Pranab as external affairs minister had to use his personal relations to build support for the deal.
"If somebody raises accusing finger, that you are not sincere, l have to speak clearly and loudly - no we are sincere," he had said.
But by now Pranab was tiring of his political fire-fighting role. There were reports of his falling out with senior colleagues, including Finance Minister P Chidambaram. At the Hindustan Times leadership summit, for the first time he indicated his desire to retire from active politics.
That he didn't want to aspire for prime ministership was perhaps a self-realisation that he would never get the top job. Always, the faithful Number 2, never quite trusted enough to be made the occupant of 7 race course road, Pranab Mukherjee will perhaps see Rasina Hill as the ultimate consolation prize for the decades he has spent in service of his party and the service of the state.