New Delhi: The rumour mills in the capital's corridors of power are all abuzz that Pranab Mukherjee is the most likely choice as the next President of India. UPA's ubiquitous troubleshooter who has been a parliamentarian since 1969 and has served three prime ministers - namely Indira Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh – is considered to be a Gandhi family loyalist and the principal architect of Sonia Gandhi's entry into politics, a mentoring responsibility he is still believed to be shouldering.
But Mukherjee is one of the rare Congressmen who left the party in the aftermath of the power struggle that ensued after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. Mukherjee saw himself, and not the rookie Rajiv Gandhi, as the rightful successor to Mrs Gandhi. He even floated the National Socialist Congress party in 1986 in West Bengal which he would merge with the Indian National Congress three years later after reaching a compromise with Rajiv Gandhi.
Many analysts, over the years, have attributed the muting of Mukherjee's political aspirations as the supreme leader of a strong regional party to his inability to emerge as a magnetic mass leader. There is truth in it. Mukherjee has been the wily fox, the most competent career politician who could never galvanise the masses. The credit for his election to Lok Sabha from Jangipur constituency goes to another MP from the same district – Adhir Chaudhury – the Congress strongman, the Robin Hood of Murshidabad.
The call of the Indian National Congress came naturally to Mukherjee as his father was an AICC member and that of the West Bengal Legislative Council. But Mukherjee, in the younger years of his life, tried his hand at teaching and journalism after securing multiple degrees in law, history and political science.
Entering the Rajya Sabha in 1969, he got his first taste of governance when in 1973, he became a junior minister handling the responsibilities of industrial development. Mukherjee's rise was meteoric in this phase and within two years, he had become Mrs Gandhi's man for all seasons. But as he grew powerful, controversies grew too.
Pranab's role during the Emergency (1975-77) has repeatedly been cited by his detractors and journalists. The Shah Commission report was scathing in its scrutiny on Pranab's role in Emergency. Asked to depose in front of the fact finding commission, he refused as did Mrs Gandhi. He has also been accused by his detractors of using the Licence Raj system and the Income Tax department to benefit a certain industrial group and to jeopardise the business prospects of its rivals.
One wonders if the Congress would want to let go of the astute number-cruncher who commands respect within his own party circles as well as outside. There are just two years to go before the general elections are held. At a time when the ruling dispensation is reeling under multiple and never-ending exposes of scams and scandals, his politicking skills and understanding of coalition politics could be sorely missed.
Over the years, he has shouldered the burden of almost all senior Union Cabinet portfolios – defence, foreign affairs, finance. If he is made the President of India, it would be a fitting end to his political career. But the man who loves quoting the reformist Chinese communist, Deng Xiaoping, but has never missed a Durga Puja at his ancestral home in rural Birbhum, would know that he could not become the Prime Minister of the country. That would be the most obvious exclusion from an otherwise awesome resume.