Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen

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Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
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  • India's former President Pranab Mukherjee passed away today due to COVID-19.
  • The boy from a small village in rural Bengal, who spent a lifetime as a Congressman with friends across party lines, and beyond politics, embodied the spirit of the Indian hip-hop anthem ‘Apna Time Aayega’ long before it was written.
  • His belief that he deserved to be the country’s Prime Minister made the party dynasts uncomfortable. But they couldn’t keep him away for too long.
India’s former President Pranab Mukherjee, who succumbed to COVID-19 away at the age of 84, leaves behind a goldmine of lessons in leadership, politics, and an irreverent spirit of survival.

The boy from a small village in rural Bengal, who spent a lifetime as a Congressman with friends across party lines, and beyond politics, embodied the spirit of the Indian hip-hop anthem ‘Apna Time Aayega’ long before it was written.

Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
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His belief that he deserved to be the country’s Prime Minister made the party dynasts uncomfortable. But they couldn’t keep him away for too long. They found him useful time and again until he was their best candidate in 2012 to be India’s Commander-in-Chief and First Citizen a.k.a the President. He was even awarded the Bharat Ratna last year.
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Born in a nondescript village called Mirati in 1935, Mukherjee had done his Masters in Political Science and History, and got himself a law degree, from the University of Calcutta by the time he began his political career in 1969.

Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
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He had even worked as a journalist briefly before taking the plunge into a political career that spanned nearly half a century.

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Over the next 48 years in public life, he held many responsibilities including being in charge of Ministries of Defence, External Affairs, Commerce, and Finance to name a few.

Within 15 years, he had earned enough experience and respect to claim the seat of the Prime Minister of India. According to a popular legend, when Rajiv Gandhi was being flown back from Kolkata to New Delhi after his mother, the incumbent Prime Minister Indiira Gandhi was assassinated by her security guard, Pranab Mukherjee assumed (and expressed) that he was the natural successor to the top seat in South Block.

Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
Pranab Mukherjee with Indira Gandhi. Year: 1983BCCL

It wasn’t the case. Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother to a thumping victory⁠— a Parliamentary record that is yet to be broken⁠— and eventually, Mukherjee had to walk out of the Congress. His own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, turned out to be a non-starter.
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He eventually came back, played the troubleshooter many times, and aspired for the coveted office at least one more time.

Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
Pranab Mukherjee announcing budget 1984BCCL

His first attempt for the Lok Sabha seat in 2004 was successful when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power. “The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice for Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi declined. This expectation was possibly based on the fact that I had extensive experience in Government, while (Manmohan) Singh’s vast experience was a civil servant with five years as a reformist Finance Minister,” he wrote in memoir, one of the four books he had authored in his lifetime.

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He had believed because he had helped Sonia Gandhi overthrow Sitaram Kesri from the position of Congress’ party president. But once again, the Congress leadership disappointed him with just the Ministry of Defence. This time, he didn’t walk away in a huff.

Apna Time Aayega (My time will come)

Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen

He wasn’t a Finance Minister that corporate India cherished. The infamous retrospective tax case against Vodafone PLC was possibly one of the most contested policy decisions and it was taken by Pranab Mukherjee when he was at the helm at South Block.

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That single case was squarely blamed for a lot of the setbacks that Indian economy faced in the subsequent years.

It was the economic equivalent of the Shah Bano case where the Supreme Court allowed Muslim women a right to receive maintenance money from a divorced spouse. This landmark case that started the conversation for the need for a Uniform Civil Code in India was overturned by the then Rajiv Gandhi government for some political points with his Muslim electorate.

Similarly, Pranab Mukherjee overturned a Supreme Court verdict with a legislation that wanted British telecom major Vodafone to cough up ₹20,000 crore as unpaid tax dues for a deal that was struck five years earlier. It allowed critics to paint the government as a petty bully that would rewrite the law to extract its pound of flesh. The arbitration is still unresolved.

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Though a lifetime Congressman, Pranab-da managed to win brownie points from the BJP too

Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
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In his role as the President, Mukherjee showed why he was often dubbed as the ‘man of all seasons’ in the media. He maintained a cordial relationship with the Narendra Modi administration.

He did criticise Modi when he had to ⁠— in 2015 he rapped the government for pushing through one too many ordinances. In 2018, when his speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur was essentially a lecture on secularism that sounded like notes from ‘Discovery of India’, written by Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister that India's Hindu right wingers like to loathe.

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Apna Time Aayega? Remembering Pranab Mukherjee, a village boy who couldn’t be stopped from being India’s first citizen
Pranab Mukherjee during Lok Sabha Election 2019BCCL

And yet, he had friends cutting across party lines and foes within his own party. It was alleged in 2011 that his office was bugged. The then opposition led by BJP jumped on the opportunity to highlight the differences between Mukherjee and P Chidambaram (who eventually went to reclaim the Finance Minister’s chair after Mukherjee was elevated to the position of President).

There are many stories of the eternal struggle of an individual’s lofty personal ambitions against the rude realities of life but there are very few whose successes, even if they are limited, can inspire people to hustle, and to do it with a smile, as did the man from the little village of Mirati.

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