Dhaka Courier

Pranab Mukherjee (1935-2020): A life led in politics

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Pranab Mukherjee (1935-2020)

Pranab Mukherjee assumed office as the 13th President of India on July 25, 2012, crowning a political career of over five decades of exemplary service to the nation in Government as well as Parliament.

Mukherjee was a man of unparalleled experience in governance with the rare distinction of having served at different times as Foreign, Defence, Commerce and Finance Minister.

He was elected to the Upper House of the Parliament (Rajya Sabha) five times from 1969 and twice to the Lower House of the Parliament (Lok Sabha) from 2004. He was a member of the Congress Working Committee, the highest policy making body of the Party for a period of 23 years.

A Gandhi family loyalist, practically the only office that ended up eluding him was that of Prime Minister. Although his name was often mentioned, the closest he got was in 2004, after party chief Sonia Gandhi declined the post amid opposition objection centering her Italian roots.

But Mukherjee was to be disappointed in his ambition to become the first Bengali occupant of 7, Racecourse Road - the Prime Minister’s residence in Lutyens’ Delhi, as Gandhi’s all-important nod went to Dr Manmohan Singh, the highly respected economist who had led the opening up of the Indian economy in 1991 as a technocratic Finance Minister.

Mukherjee has written candidly in his memoirs how at first he had refused to even serve in Singh’s cabinet, but the Gandhi matriarch brought him around. A creature of politics, he would spend the next 8 years as arguably the most influential and prominent member of the cabinet, while serving repeat stints in two of the Four Great Offices of State (External Affairs followed by Finance).

From there it was on to the presidency, breaking what had stood till then as another duck for his state of West Bengal. In Rashtrapati Bhavan, the imperative to stay above the fray of politics must have jarred with his instincts, that longed for a place in central casting. In hindsight, history was kind to Mukherjee, as he watched the party he had served with such distinction hit a historic trough in the 2014 election that brought Narendra Modi to serve in the office he had once longed for, from his lofty post as First Citizen.

During the period 2004-2012, Mukherjee was instrumental in spearheading critical decisions of the Government on a range of issues such as Administrative reforms, Right to Information, Right to Employment, Food Security, Energy Security, Information Technology and telecommunication, setting up of UIDAI, Metro Rail etc. through Chairmanship of over 95 Groups of Ministers constituted for the purpose.

In the seventies and eighties, he was instrumental in setting up the Regional Rural Banks (1975) and the EXIM Bank of India as well as National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (1981-82). Shri Mukherjee was also author of a modified formula for resource sharing between the Centre and the States in 1991 which came to be known as the Gadgil - Mukherjee formula.

A powerful orator and scholar, Mukherjee’s intellectual and political prowess as well as remarkable knowledge of international relations, financial affairs and parliamentary process are widely admired. He has been acclaimed for his role as a consensus builder on difficult national issues through his ability to forge unity amongst the diverse political parties that form part of India’s vibrant multi-party democracy.

A man of humble origins, Mukherjee was born in the small village of Mirati in Birbhum District of West Bengal as son of freedom fighters, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee and Rajlakshmi on December 11, 1935.

Mukherjee’s father was a Congress leader who endured great hardship including being sent to jail several times for his role in India’s struggle for independence.

Mukherjee acquired a Master’s degree in History and Political Science as well as a degree in Law from the University of Kolkata.

He then embarked on his professional life as a college teacher and journalist. Inspired by his father’s contribution to the national movement, Mukherjee in 1969 plunged into full time public life following his election to the Upper House of the Parliament (Rajya Sabha).

Under the careful mentoring of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Mukherjee’s rise in his political career was rapid. He was made Deputy Minister, Industry; Shipping and Transport, Steel and Industry and Minister of State for Finance in the period 1973-74.

At just 47, he assumed office as the youngest Finance Minister of India in 1982, in the last Cabinet of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was Leader of the House in the Upper House of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) from 1980 to 1985.

Later, he was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission from 1991 to 1996, Minister for Commerce from 1993 to 1995, Minister of External Affairs from 1995 to 1996, Minister of Defence from 2004 to 2006 and once again the Minister of External Affairs from 2006 to 2009.

He was the Minister of Finance from 2009 to 2012 and Leader of the Lower House of Parliament from 2004 to 2012 till he resigned to contest election to the office of the President.

Mukherjee had extensive diplomatic experience and has served on the Board of Governors of the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank.

He has led the Indian delegations to the Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ Conferences in 1982, 1983 and 1984; the United Nations General Assembly in 1994, 1995, 2005 and 2006, the Conference of Commonwealth Heads of Government at Auckland in 1995, the Non-Aligned Foreign Minister’s Conference at Cartagena in 1995 and the Conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the Afro –Asian Conference in Bandung in 1995.

A prolific reader, Mukherjee also authored several books on the Indian Economy and on Nation Building.

The many awards and honours conferred on him include India’s second highest civilian award, Padma Vibhusan in 2008, the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1997 and Best Administrator in India Award in 2011.

He was also the recipient of a plethora of honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa conferred by the University of Dhaka in 2013.

He was rated one of the best five Finance Ministers of the world in 1984 according to a survey conducted by "Euro Money” Journal published from New York and was declared ‘Finance Minister of the year’ for Asia in 2010 by "Emerging Markets”, the journal of record for the World Bank and the IMF.

Mukherjee was married to late Suvra Mukherjee (17.9.1940-18.8.2015), an accomplished singer of Rabindra Sangeet and an artist, who traced her roots to Narail in Bangladesh. In fact her family continues to reside there, and Mukherjee made sure to visit them during a trip to Bangladesh in the midst of the highly charged political atmosphere of 2013, despite the opposition refusing to withdraw a hartal they had called that day.

He has two sons and a daughter.

Mukherjee enjoyed reading, gardening and music in his spare time. Simple in his tastes, Mukherjee was a dedicated patron of the arts and culture.

An avid traveller, there are few parts of India and few countries in the world he had not visited in his illustrious and long public career.

  • Pranab Mukherjee (1935-2020)

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