11th December 1935: Pranab Mukherjee, 13th President of India, was born

“I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi. I was a boy when Bengal was savaged by a famine that killed millions; the misery and sorrow is still not lost on me. We have achieved much . . . but [our] national mission must continue . . . to eliminate the curse of poverty, and create such opportunities for the young that they can take our India forward by quantum leaps.”

—    Acceptance speech by Pranab Mukherjee on becoming president

It was indeed a long journey for Pranab Mukherjee, who was born in Mirati, a village in Birbhum district of what is now the state of West Bengal, on 11 December 1935. The Congress leader, who on more than one occasion was considered to be a contender for the post of prime minister and occupied several key ministries in the union cabinet in his political career, became president of India in 2012.

Mukherjee’s father, Kamada Kinkar, took part in the freedom struggle and was a member of the state legislative council from 1952 to 1964. After completing his Bachelor’s degree, Mukherjee went on to do a Master’s in history and political science, along with a degree in law. He did several jobs, including stints in teaching and journalism. In 1969, when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha, he was affiliated to the Bangla Congress (which later merged with the Congress). In 1973 he was appointed deputy minister of industrial development in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet.

Looking back at the circumstances leading to the 1975 Emergency imposed by Indira, Mukherjee candidly wrote in India Today magazine in December 2011: “Everyone makes mistakes, the best of those in power. This is the nemesis of Greek tragedy. If Mrs Gandhi had even once approached J.P. [Jayaprakash Narayan] before 1975, things would have been different. A useless ego takes people to strange situations. Then, there were cronies and jokers around Mrs Gandhi. After all, [D.P.] Dhar and [P.N.] Haksar [Indira’s advisors] had an intellectual input. When they removed Haksar and Dhar died, cronies filled the space — people like Shankar Dayal Sharma and Deb Kanta Barooah.”

An Indira loyalist, Mukherjee became finance minister in 1982. However, after Indira’s assassination in 1984, he found himself politically vulnerable and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent him to West Bengal to take care of party affairs there. Things only got worse after that and he was expelled from the Congress. Mukherjee founded his own Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress in 1986 but eventually it merged with the Congress.

However, it was only after Rajiv’s death that Mukherjee was back in the reckoning. He became deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and later, external affairs minister in the Narashima Rao government. With Congress president Sonia Gandhi declining to become prime minister after the Congress-led UPA defeated the NDA in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Mukherjee was said to be one of the contenders for the top job — but Sonia’s choice was Manmohan Singh, who went on to be prime minister for the second term as well after the UPA emerged victorious in the 2009 general elections.

Mukherjee held several top posts in the UPA, such as minister of finance, defence and external affairs. Besides, he was regarded as the chief troubleshooter of the UPA government, someone Sonia trusted. After the UPA government barely managed to defuse the crisis arising out of anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare’s fast in 2011, Mukherjee in an interview to news channel NDTV said: “[Corruption] is a concern of all . . . whether people inside the government or outside the government, how to eradicate the corruption, at least to reduce it to the tolerable level. That was one of the primary concerns and people were agitating under a popular leader in a Gandhian way. Therefore, that was an issue, which was to be addressed adequately and ultimately he declared to give up his fast. Naturally all of us had a great relief.” 

When he was nominated as the UPA’s presidential candidate in June 2012, Outlook magazine put it in perspective: “Sonia Gandhi, pertinently, is undoing a big injustice by rewarding Pranab with the presidency of the republic in the twilight of his political life. Her late husband Rajiv Gandhi had unfairly thrown Pranab into the Congress dustbin . . . Pranab . . . eventually crawled out of the Congress dustbin and painstakingly proved his loyalty many times over for over two decades — belying Rajiv’s doubts in the bargain. And last week, Rajiv’s widow was left with no choice but to acknowledge Pranab’s unwavering loyalty to the Gandhi dynasty—Sonia included—and life-long services to the party by nominating him for the country’s highest constitutional post for the next five years.”

Mukherjee beat the rival candidate P. A. Sangma by a comfortable margin, and was sworn-in as President on 25 July 2012. During his 2013 Independence speech, President Pranab Mukherjee reminded the nation: “Institutions are a mirror of national character. Today we see widespread cynicism and disillusionment with the governance and functioning of institutions in our country. Our legislatures look more like combat arenas, rather than fora that legislate. Corruption has become a major challenge. The precious resources of the nation are being wasted through indolence and indifference. It is sapping the dynamism of our society. We need to correct this regression.”

Also on this day:

1882 — Subramanya Bharathi, Tamil poet and social reformer, was born

1922 — Dilip Kumar, legendary Indian actor, was born 

1931 — Osho, mystic and spiritual teacher, was born

1969 — Viswanathan Anand, Indian chess Grandmaster, was born

2002 — Nani Palkhivala, jurist and economist, passed away

2004 — M.S. Subbulakshmi, legendary Carnatic vocalist, passed away

2011 — Mario Miranda, cartoonist, passed away 

2012 — Ravi Shankar, sitar maestro, passed away

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