Pranab Mukherjee: jack of all trades - except one (Comment)

February 28th, 2009 - 11:50 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyEven as Pranab Mukherjee acknowledged with folded hands and a shy smile L.K. Advani’s lavish praise for him in parliament, both he and members on both sides of the house knew that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader was right in saying that without the external affairs minister, who is now also India’s finance minister, at the helm, the government might have found it difficult to function during Manmohan Singh’s hospitalization and recuperation.

Nothing quite underlined Mukherjee’s indispensability more than the fact that he was asked to handle two of the most important portfolios at a critical time. As foreign minister, he has been in the forefront of India’s uncharacteristically assertive stance against Pakistan after the Mumbai mayhem.

But, as if this onerous responsibility was not enough, he has had to look after the finance portfolio as well on the eve of a crucial general election and even as the country was coping with the global financial meltdown.

Evidently, for Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president and chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) , there was no one else in either her party or in the ruling coalition who could meet the exacting demands of the two key ministries.

Nor was this expression of her and the government’s trust in Mukherjee either sudden or exceptional, for he had been the automatic choice to head a group of ministers (GOM) whenever such a panel was set up to consider a problem.

The reason why all eyes turn to Mukherjee at times of trouble is obvious to all those inside and outside the corridors of power who have seen his style of functioning. Among the attributes which mark him out as a man for all seasons is an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of his own party and of the Indian political scene.

In addition, his long stints at the highest levels of government - he first became a minister at the centre in 1973 - have so finessed his grasp of bureaucratic procedures that he can easily find his way through the thicket of administrative and political labyrinths.

Mukherjee’s only disadvantage, as he himself admits, is his short temper. But this supposed liability may well have become an asset in the current somewhat tense situation involving Pakistan when any loose talk can have unforeseen repercussions.

It is noteworthy that ever since Mukherjee became the driving force of Indian diplomacy after 26/11, the officials have mostly fallen silent, especially after National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan’s faux pas over Pakistan’s response to Indian accusations about the terrorists.

However, even as Mukherjee earns the praise of his political adversaries and perhaps evokes the secret envy of his party men, he cannot be unaware that his present position marks the highest point of his long and eventful career. He can expect to go no higher than be a de facto “acting” prime minister, but not a de jure one, despite all the accomplishments and accolades.

Exactly what prevents him from climbing up to the topmost rung of the ladder is apparently something indefinable - perhaps a lack of gravitas or popular appeal or a presence born of high intellectual attainments or a patrician background. Arguably, if H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral could be prime ministers, there is no reason why Mukherjee cannot.

But those were stopgap arrangements of stopgap governments, much like the earlier unexpected elevations of Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar at a time of political turmoil. But the Congress’ tradition of charismatic leaders, except for P V Narasimha Rao, leaves little choice outside the dynasty unless he is known for personal integrity and academic brilliance like Manmohan Singh. Even then, the latter has been very much a No. 2 to the party president, an “accidental” prime minister, as he has acknowledged.

It is also possible that Mukherjee’s lack of a base in his home state of West Bengal is a negative factor. After starting his career in the Bangla Congress, a breakaway group, in the mid-1960s, he never became a major figure in West Bengal till recently. Nor could he win an election till 2004.

In the 1970s, he was overshadowed by then chief minister Siddhartha Sankar Ray. After that, his frequent tussles with former union power minister A.B.A.Ghani Khan Chaudhury in West Bengal did not help his image while the vociferous Youth Congress brigade comprising Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and others hogged the limelight.

Though a loyalist in the sense that Mukherjee sided with Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and at the time of the 1969 split, the fact that he left the party in the mid-1980s because Rajiv Gandhi suspected him of nurturing prime ministerial ambitions remains a grey, but not black, spot in his political curriculum vitae.

Since his return to the Congress two decades ago, Mukherjee re-established himself by earning the trust of the party’s First Family and by his exceptional competence. But even if the top post in Delhi has eluded him, he has finally become a natural candidate for the chief ministership of West Bengal if the Congress and the Trinamool Congress can manage to pip the Left at the post. But there is little chance of that in the foreseeable future.

(28.02.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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