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The only causes Mukherjee served were not those of the Indian public, but of those in power.

20 19 19
28.09.2020

Former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, or as the Indian media often described him, “the best prime minister India never had”, died on August 31.

Before serving as president between 2012 and 2017, Mukherjee held multiple important portfolios, including that of the minister of finance, defence and foreign affairs, for three separate prime ministers.

In a political career spanning over half a century, mostly as a high-ranking member of the Indian National Congress, Mukherjee enjoyed admiration and respect from across the political spectrum and came to be known as a successful “consensus builder”.

As a result, following his death, almost all prominent Indian politicians publicly expressed their grief and praised his contributions to the country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from the rival nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said Mukherjee “left an indelible mark on the development trajectory of our nation”. Mukherjee’s successor, current President Ram Nath Kovind, defined him as a “colossus in public life” who served the country with the “spirit of a sage”.

The Indian and international media also marked Mukherjee’s passing with sweeping appraisal, describing him as the “indispensable man of Indian politics”, a politician for “all seasons”, and an “outstanding personality”.

The many reports and editorials that were published in the aftermath of his death cast Mukherjee as an all-round “great public servant”, with the only blot in his political career, if any, being his participation in the 1975-77 national emergency that gagged the Indian press and stifled all opposition voices.

If greatness is to be measured by his loyalty to the influential Gandhi family, or his diplomatic and strategic prowess through which he managed to sail the Indian National Congress (and the Gandhi family) through several tumultuous periods, sure, he was a great servant to the specific causes of that party-family nexus, but his greatness stops right there.

Truth is, there are many more skeletons in the former president’s closet, beyond his participation in the devastating emergency. From being one of the founding fathers of crony capitalism in India to being involved in multiple corruption scandals, he was just another Indian politician. To that extent, the much-discussed “greatness” of Mukherjee, lies not in his service to the nation, but in the shrewdness with which he was able to cover his tracks.

Mukherjee was a college teacher in West Bengal state before being elected to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, in 1969. Soon after entering politics, he became a protege of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was appointed deputy minister of industrial development in 1973.

After swiftly becoming a senior Congress figure with the help of Indira Gandhi, he showed his loyalty to the prime minister by choosing to look the other way when she controversially declared a state of national emergency in June 1975.

Throughout the emergency that lasted for some 21 months and left a dark mark on India’s democracy, Mukherjee demonstrated his unflinching loyalty to the Gandhi family, even if it amounted to forging (PDF) official documents. Most worryingly, he turned a blind eye to the excesses of the prime minister’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi, who spearheaded a gruesome campaign to forcefully sterilise poor men.

In the years after the end of the emergency, still determined to protect the Gandhi family, Mukherjee followed Indira Gandhi’s lead in refusing to give testimony to the Shah Commission, which was tasked with inquiring into the excesses of the period. As a result, the commission failed to complete a thorough investigation, and all prominent leaders of the party, including Mukherjee, came out clean, at least in a legal sense.

After a brief period in opposition, the Congress came back to govern the nation in 1980. Mukherjee contested the election from West Bengal and suffered a decisive loss, and yet, he was appointed as a minister in Indira Gandhi’s new cabinet, as well as the leader of the upper house of the parliament. This was, undoubtedly, the reward for his loyalty to Indira Gandhi during the era of emergency.

Mukherjee’s return to power marked the beginning of a new chapter in his political career. As someone who has the ear of the prime minister, he not only started to cement himself as an indispensable player in India’s political scene, but also played a primary role in the birth and........

© Al Jazeera


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