Former president Pranab Mukherjee, a recipient of the country’s highest civilian award and a towering statesman admired across party lines, died at a hospital in Delhi on Monday, leaving behind a rich legacy he built in a five-decade-long public life that has cemented his place as a doyen of Indian politics and a troubleshooter par excellence for the Congress in its prime.
Mukherjee, 84, died of multiple organ failure after he was admitted to New Delhi’s Army Hospital Research and Referral three weeks ago. He slipped into coma after an emergency surgery for a blood clot in his brain on August 10, having also tested positive for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). His health deteriorated after a lung infection resulted in septic shock.
Doctors said the seven-time parliamentarian died of a cardiac arrest at 4.30pm. His family announced his death in the evening, triggering an outpouring of grief across the political spectrum. Mukherjee, who received the Bharat Ratna in 2019, is survived by two sons and a daughter; his wife died in 2015.
“During his political career that spanned decades, Shri Pranab Mukherjee made long-lasting contributions in key economic and strategic ministries. He was an outstanding Parliamentarian, always well-prepared, extremely articulate as well as witty,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter, mourning Mukherjee’s death. “As India’s President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee made Rashtrapati Bhavan even more accessible to common citizens. He made the President’s house a centre of learning, innovation, culture, science and literature. His wise counsel on key policy matters will never be forgotten by me,” Modi said in a series of tweets.
The government announced seven days of state mourning for Mukherjee. “During the period… the national flag will fly at half-mast on all buildings throughout India, where it is flown regularly, and there will be no official entertainment,” a home ministry statement said.
President Ram Nath Kovind, who succeeded Mukherjee, said his death is the passing of an era. “…A colossus in public life, he served Mother India with the spirit of a sage. The nation mourns losing one of its worthiest sons. Condolences to his family, friends & all citizens,” Kovind tweeted.
The Congress parliamentary party, too, offered its condolences to Mukherjee’s family. “Pranabda (as he was fondly called) had been such an integral and prominent part of national life, the Congress party and the central government for over five decades, it is hard to imagine how we can do without his wisdom, experience, sage advice and deep understanding of so many subjects,” a statement signed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi said.“…His life over the past 50 years mirrored 50 years of the history of India, for he played a crucial role both in shaping the course of events as well as actively participating in them…,” it added.
Born in Mirati, a village in undivided Bengal, on December 11, 1935, Mukherjee entered Parliament in 1969. A former college teacher with degrees in political science and history (a Masters) and law, he became a protege of the then PM, Indira Gandhi, and remained loyal to her — even during the Emergency (1975-77).
He lost the finance portfolio after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, took over as the PM. He formed his own party but returned to the Congress in 1989 after reconciliation with Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991. Mukherjee joined the cabinets of his successors in the Congress party, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, and emerged as a consensus builder.
Between 1973 and 2012, Mukherjee held the portfolios of external affairs, defence and finance, among other departments, for three PMs and also helped the Congress navigate the tricky corridors of coalition politics. From 2012-2017, he served as the 13th President of India. Mukherjee served in the Rajya Sabha for five terms and in the Lok Sabha for two terms. He was India’s only non-Prime Minister who was the leader of the Lok Sabha for eight years. He was the leader of the Rajya Sabha from 1980-85.
Before he became the President in 2012, Mukherjee, who is credited with having a sharp memory and deep intellect, was heading 24 of 39 GOMs (groups of ministers) in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, an indication of his importance.
While Mukherjee himself said the country’s prime ministership was not for him, it was widely believed that it was his biggest ambition. It remained a dream in the end, but he finally got a tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan, from where he often acted as a conscience keeper of national polity.
In 2018, a year after Mukherjee demitted the office of President, his visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur — a testimony to his bipartisanship — triggered a row with a section of Congress leaders questioning the move. At that June event, Mukherjee talked about the celebration of diversity and tolerance, and underlined how India’s identity had taken shape after a “long-drawn process of confluence, assimilation and co-existence”. The speech eventually drew praises from all quarters.
On Monday, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat described Mukherjee as a “guide” for the Sangh who didn’t believe in political untouchability.
‘Citizen Mukherjee’, as his Twitter profile described him, did not lose touch with his roots despite his long walk through the alleys of power and prominence. Every year, he would visit his ancestral home during Durga Puja and perform prayers in traditional attire.
“In his death, our country has lost one of its greatest leaders of Independent India… I depended on him a great deal for his wisdom, vast knowledge and experience of public affairs,” former PM Manmohan Singh said.