THE BLOG

Will the Sun rise from India's East?

All parts of India have given birth to a prime minister, except the
eastern. Subhash Chandra Bose and Jyoti Basu, both sons of the East,
came close to leading the nation but destiny willed otherwise. Pranab
Mukherjee is the only viable candidate from the region today and were
he to miss his chance, expect it to be a while before another local
emerges to ascend the throne of Delhi.

Upon Indira Gandhi's sudden death in 1984, intrigue blanketed the
corridors of power in Delhi. Dark rumours swirled that Mr. Mukherjee,
then the senior-most cabinet minister, had, citing precedence, angled
for the premier's post, if only for the interim. Forces arrayed
against him preemptively staged a dynastic coup of sorts to annoint
Rajiv Gandhi, and the new political dispensation lost no time in
banishing Mr. Mukherjee into political oblivion. No tears were shed
for him in a party beset with sycophancy. A man was given a bad name
and hung out to dry.

Eleven long years later, Narasimha Rao recalled him into the union
cabinet. Galling it must have been for Mr. Mukherjee to serve under a
once-junior colleague. After the Congress returned to power in 2004,
his claims for the top job were again quashed, with the crown going to
a relative political novice, Manmohan Singh. Cross the Gandhis once
and you will never win them back. Just ask Sharad Pawar or Amitabh
Bachchan.

First offered the home ministry, he was humiliatingly shunted into the
lesser one of defense. For only a die-hard family loyalist like
Shivraj Patil could be entrusted with minding affairs at home. Quietly
stomaching the insults, Mr. Mukherjee got to work. In a government
teetering ever on the edge, he emerged as the principal, quite
possibly only, troubleshooter. Communists causing migraines. Pop the
Mukherjee pill. Nuclear deal in jeopardy. Pranabda to the fore.
Telengana a nightmare. Save our souls, Bhadralok. Whenever the
political inexperience of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi shows
through, handyman Mukherjee is beckoned to bail out his troubled
masters. In 2009, leader of the opposition, L.K. Advani, hailed him in
Parliament, stating that but for him the UPA government would not have
survived. What an accolade from a political adversary, especially one
not given to handing them out easily! Mr. Mukherjee simply folded his
hands in gratitude.

So how has his own party appreciated him? When Manmohan Singh became
indisposed in 2008, precedence once more dictated that Mr. Mukherjee,
as his second-in-command, be named caretaker PM. Instead the premier's
duties were scattered over several people to blur the line of
succession and keep all contenders on edge, a ruse Machiavelli would
have been proud of. Yet again the loyal Bengali trouper did not
dissent, even though his fidelity had continued to be called into
question for close to three decades. And, after the Congress won
reelection in 2009, he politely excused himself from being considered
for premiership by citing his inability to speak Hindi fluently. How
on Earth then did Deve Gowda make it with virtually no skills in the
language?

In case Manmohan Singh were to become incapacitated during his second
term, two scenarios emerge. One is that Rahul Gandhi becomes PM but
that is unlikely given his inexperience and reluctance. More
plausibly, a Gandhi family retainer will be pitch-forked into the seat
to keep it warm for the heir apparent. P. Chidambaram, loyal to a
fault and bereft of a threatening mass base, is rapidly emerging as
the front-runner. Fated to be denied once again is Pranab Mukherjee,
whose advanced age of 74 would probably be used against him, with
little regard for what wonders the man could wrought even in a short
tenure at the top. For heaven's sake, did Benedict not trump
senescence to become Pope at 78? And, it will be many an aeon before
the Sun rises from the East.