September 9, 2020
Luck was the propellant that launched Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India who died on August 31 at age 84, into the orbit of power as a young man. Once there, it was a combination of shrewdness, stoicism, and an almost superhuman capacity to master detail that kept him there. It seems strange that it took nearly seven decades for a Bengali to be elected to the highest office of the state in India. But what is stranger still is that it was Mukherjee who broke the unspoken curse that has haunted Bengalis in Indian politics: despite Bengalis being in the vanguard of Indian nationalism, the highest jobs in government have long eluded them. Nothing about Mukherjee’s early life suggested a career destined to culminate as president of India.
Born in Bengal on December 11, 1934 to a family active in nationalist politics, Mukherjee witnessed the savagery that attended the 1947 Partition of India, when the lush eastern half of Bengal was given to the newly created state of Pakistan. The experience did not, however, breed any sympathy in Mukherjee for the Hindu nationalists who argued that, once Pakistan had been invented as a state for India’s Muslims, what remained should logically be identified as the homeland of the Hindus. If anything, the memory of the subcontinent’s mutilation in the cause of ethno-religious nationalism cemented Mukherjee’s belief that secularism was the only guarantor of Indian unity.
Tenured as a lecturer of political science in Calcutta in the mid-1960s, Mukherjee rose through a local breakaway faction of the Congress Party — the engine of India’s freedom movement and the default party of government after independence — aligned with the communists. In 1969, he was deputed to Midnapore, on the banks of the Cossye river in Bengal, to supervise the campaign of V.K. Krishna Menon for the Lok Sabha, the lower (and more powerful) house of the Indian parliament. It was a dismal brief. Menon, once the second-most powerful man in India after the prime minister, had become something of a political pariah following his disastrous handling of the 1962 war with China as prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s defense minister. Orphaned by the Congress Party after Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, was elected prime minister four years after that debacle, and smarting from a string of humiliating defeats in Bombay, Menon had traveled to Bengal to fight a by-election as a Bangla Congress candidate, prompted by the death of Midnapore’s representative to parliament.
Nobody expected Menon, an abrasive Keralite with no previous political connection to Bengal, to prevail. His victory, by a crushing margin of more than 100,000 votes, startled everybody. Even Gandhi was awestruck by the outcome. If there were a man with the skill to sell a candidate incapable of speaking a phrase of Bengali to voters in Bengal, she wanted him in her court. Mukherjee was nominated to the Rajya Sabha — the upper house of the Indian parliament modeled on the U.S. Senate and the British House of Lords — and recruited into the ruling party. The election that should have cleared the path for Menon’s political comeback set the stage for Mukherjee’s rise. Within five years, Menon was gone and his manager was among Gandhi’s most trusted aides.