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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 39, New Delhi, September 12, 2020

Recalling a brief acquaintanceship with Pranab Mukherjee | Sumanta Banerjee

Friday 11 September 2020, by Sumanta Banerjee

As I read the obituaries which are pouring in to pay tributes to Pranab Mukherjee, I find a missing link - the years during 1950-60 which were first spent by him as a post-graduate student in Calcutta, followed by a stint as a college lecturer, and then his entry into politics as an activist in West Bengal that was to lead to his eventual arrival in Delhi as an MP in 1969. Since I knew him during those years , I may provide a glimpse into that early period of his political career.

Pranab and I were contemporaries in Calcutta University as M.A. students during 1955-56 - he in the political science discipline, and I in the English literature course. But I don’t remember whether at that time we interacted often with each other, since we followed different political paths. He, coming from a traditional Congress family, was loyal to the Congress students’ forum, while I was a Communist activist of the then Students’ Federation of India. It was only after we left the university, and many years later that we crossed our paths.

In the early sixties, while I was a reporter with The Statesman newspaper in Calcutta, Pranab was teaching in a college near Calcutta. Later, in 1966, the Congress party split in West Bengal, with a faction led by the veteran Ajoy Mukherjee forming the Bangla Congress. Pranab joined the Bangla Congress. While covering these political developments, I ran into Pranab, both of us re-discovering that we were contemporaries in the Calcutta University. That created an affinity of sorts . In the course of my reporting assignments, I began to interact quite often with him, since he had by then become an important spokesperson of the new party. He played a major role in the 1967 election campaign which brought to power a Bangla Congress-Left Front coalition in West Bengal for the first time. Although it had a short span of eight months (due to its subversion by the then Congress ruled Centre, which imposed President’s rule in February 1968), the fresh elections held in 1969 brought back to power the same Bangla Congress-Left coalition in West Bengal. It was during this second united front regime that Pranab got nominated to the Rajya Sabha as a Bangla Congress candidate in 1969.

Meanwhile, I had been transferred to the Delhi office of The Statesman newspaper (in 1967), and was occasionally assigned to cover Rajya Sabha debates. That was how I resumed my acquaintanceship with Pranab when he arrived in Delhi as an MP in 1969. We met sometime at the canteen in Parliament, over tea and snacks. In 1971, I had an opportunity to become closer to him because of an interesting incident. A friend of mine, Professor Amit Gupta had joined the Nehru Memorial Library at Teen Murti as a research officer, and was being threatened with termination by the authorities for forming an employees’ association to voice their grievances. I took Amit to Pranab (he was living then in one of the flats in the South Avenue MPs’ quarters), requesting him to intervene in the dispute, - since he had by then become a favourite of Indira Gandhi’s! He did talk to Indira, and managed to bring about a compromise with the Nehru Memorial authorities that allowed Amit to continue in his position for some time.

But that apart, Pranab during those years as a Rajya Sabha MP was always a friendly person, easily accessible not only to reporters in the capital, but also to ordinary people in distress from his constituency in Medinipur , from which he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. It is because of this, that people in Medinipur still remember him as their benefactor, as evident from the homages that were paid by them to him after his death. Interestingly enough, although Pranab’s place of birth was in the Birbhum district, where he grew up as a child and student, under the auspices of his father who was a veteran Congressman, Pranab happened to land up in the Medinipur district as a political activist in the 1960s, due to peculiar circumstances. When in 1966, the Congress in West Bengal split, and Ajoy Mukherjee formed the Bangla Congress, he looked around for young Congress men who would be willing to join him. His lieutenant Sushil Dhara, a veteran Congressman from Medinipur, spotted the young Pranab (who was then discontented with the prevailing leadership of Atulya Ghosh and Prafulla Sen), and persuaded him to join Bangla Congress, and build up the party’s base in Medinipur. That is how Pranab’s political career began.

However, while watching the progress of that career of his during the 1960-70 period, I saw signs that alienated me from him. I detected symptoms of his political ambition of upward mobility in New Delhi’s political ladder. He was personally moving more and more towards Indira Gandhi despite the increasing signs of her authoritarian tendencies. Finally, he managed to work his way up to the position of the youngest finance minister in Indira’s cabinet in 1973 - at the early age of thirty seven. Although it flattered many Bengalis in West Bengal , I found it rather disconcerting from my observation post in New Delhi as a journalist, as I somehow had an uncanny suspicion that Indira Gandhi was moving in a rather dangerous direction. Sure enough, she imposed the Emergency in 1975. After I came back to Delhi from jail, following the end of the Emergency, I discovered that Pranab had climbed up more steps of the political ladder - by joining the Emergency regime as a minister in the Indira cabinet. Needless to say, I never again renewed my acquaintanceship with Pranab.

My last face-to-face encounter with him was at the Calcutta Press Club sometime in 1986. He was then thrown out from the Congress party by Rajiv Gandhi, who suspected him of conspiring against him. In retaliation, Pranab had formed his own party called the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, and he addressed a press conference at the Press Club, announcing its formation. I asked him whether his party had any future, given the poor support base that he had. He skirted the question with his usual twisting smile. Sure enough, true to his nature, he returned to the Congress a few years later in 1989, and managed to renew his profession of climbing up the political ladder to acquire major portfolios in the Congress-led cabinet at the centre during the 1990s - and finally the position of the President of India. His last public performance was his address at an event organized by the RSS in June, 1989 - which was even looked down upon by his own daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Congress spokeswoman, who warned her father that the Sangh Parivar would use his presence as its tool. I wonder whether by agreeing to address an RSS rally and sharing platform with its leaders, Pranab was again trying to climb up another ladder at the fag end of his political career - this time to find a berth in the new regime of Narendra Modi.

I may be accused of being unfair to an old acquaintance. But I remain committed to Voltaire’s saying: “One owes respect to the living/But to the dead one owes nothing but the truth”

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