Former President Pranab Mukherjee, the elder statesman of Indian politics, described by many as the “best Prime Minister India never had” , has died at 84. He had tested positive for COVID-19 and had been on ventilator since a surgery to remove a brain clot earlier this month.
Mr Mukherjee, “Citizen Mukherjee” on his Twitter handle, had announced his coronavirus positive status in his last tweet.
This time last year, Mr Mukherjee had been awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.
For Congress critics, he was the Prime Minister who wasn’t. Mr Mukherjee, a lifelong Congressman, held some of the most important ministries in his long career but stopped short of the top post.
He was a minister in almost every Congress government since Indira Gandhi helped him get elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1969. He was widely expected to be Sonia Gandhi’s choice for Prime Minister after she refused to take the top job in 2004. But she picked Manmohan Singh.
He ended a spectacular career with the post of President of India, a largely ceremonial office, from 2012 to 2017.
In 2017, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that Mr Mukherjee was “correctly upset when I was made Prime Minister”. Speaking at the launch of Mr Mukherjee’s book, he said: “He had a reason to feel upset but he respected me and we have a great relationship which will continue till we live.”
One of the country’s most widely-respected politicians, he was, to all across party lines, “Pranab-da”, the man who knew his constitution, with five decades of political and administrative experience, and political acumen that made him all-round problem solver. He was among the sharpest minds in his field, with an understanding of politics, economic policies as well as strategic issues.
Mr Mukherjee, then Finance Minister, headed over 100 parliamentary committees at one time, which was seen as a measure of his importance in the government. He also remained the Congress’s chief troubleshooter and the party’s Mr Dependable until he became President.
An episode that did cause a rift between Mr Mukherjee and the Congress, his party of decades, was his move in 2018 to attend an event of the RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor. For many in the Congress, it was a betrayal.
As president, Mr Mukherjee witnessed the transition from the Congress-led UPA to the BJP-led government in 2014. He also enjoyed a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who always had warm words for him.
Mr Mukherjee was acknowledged across political parties as one of the best Parliamentarians the country has seen.
Not only was he vital to the Congress’s decision-making, Pranab-da was also the man who got along with both coalition partners and the opposition. After a full day’s work as minister, he would have political meetings at his home after 10 PM and often stretch past midnight.
Mr Mukherjee was born to Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, a freedom fighter, in a village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district.
After studying politics, history and law in Calcutta University, he worked as a teacher, a journalist and a lawyer before joining politics in 1969.
In his years in the Congress, there was a brief moment when Mr Mukherjee quit the party in the power tussle following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Mrs Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi did not accommodate Mr Mukherjee in his Cabinet and he floated his own party — the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. He was brought back by former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, who made him the deputy chairman of Planning Commission.
Mr Mukherjee had a passion for reading, gardening and music – especially Rabindra Sangeet. Fish curry and rice was a meal he could not resist.