Pranab Mukherkee's remarkably workable political relationship with the Left is will known in Bengali political lore as is his animosity with Mamata Banerjee, says Anirban Ganguly.
Their public posturing notwithstanding the Left has always had a remarkably workable political relationship with Pranab Mukherjee. Old timers' recall how a callow Pranab untutored in the ways of politics at Delhi was patiently nurtured by the Communist Party of India's young firebrand Rajya Sabha MP, the late Kalyan Roy, son of the stalwart Congress leader Kiron Shankar Roy, sometime law minister in B C Roy's cabinet.
From shoelace, to suit to pipe, Pranab, legend has it, learnt the nuances and etiquette of national politics from his young Communist bhadralok-proletarian friends who never gave up on him despite his being for them an epitome of bourgeois politics.
The second United Front government led by the redoubtable Ajoy Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress and supported by CPI-Marxist led by Jyoti Basu came to power in West Bengal in February 1969. Consisting of an assortment of ex-Congressmen the Bangla Congress cobbled up at two intervals the first non-Congress front in the state and gave the Communists their first taste of power and political legitimacy in the state.
Pranab, then a general secretary with the Bangla Congress, played a role in the formation and was suddenly catapulted to the national scene when he entered the portals of the Rajya Sabha in July 1969. The Comrades, have ever since remembered with gratitude his good turn to their political rise.
The rest, as they say, is history. Pranab's increasing parliamentary activism, his rapidly learning the tricks of political trade soon caught the attention of Indira Gandhi and she picked him up as she was to soon pick up Purno Sangma and provided them both with a national space and voice.
Pranab, of course emerged the dearer of the two. It is another matter, that today, these two handpicked men of Mrs Gandhi senior, both of whom had quit the mother-party at one time or another over personal and ideological differences, stand poised to duel out their last political battle at the foot of the Raisina Hill.
In Bengal, over the decades, Pranab's stellar equation with the Communists has always been the staple of drawing room and para adda. His ties with the Communists were cemented during the Jyoti Basu era and further concretised during Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's tenure. Basu, in fact, always felt at ease and en repos with both S S Ray and Pranab. His belligerence towards them in the state gave way to a warm old world camaraderie in the then secluded and not so media infested confines of Lyutens Delhi.
Pranab's Communist link has always remained his crucial political lifeline during a long period of nearly a quarter century especially between the mid 1980s and 2004 when he finally got elected to the Lok Sabha. During crucial phases, Pranab managed to regain entry into the Rajya Sabha, despite his party being reduced to a rag in the state and himself having no electoral base.
The political talk that Pranab's Communist comrades bail him out gained credence in the state. A number of his present panegyrists had then popularised the expression 'rootless wonder' while referring to Pranab, to his brand of politics and to his tenacity for political survival. His detractors in the state Congress who had blamed him and his acolytes for shrinking the opposition space in the state and thus allowing the prolongation of Left rule through raising the TINA spectre, slapped him with the sobriquet of 'watermelon' -- green outside and red within.
While that may be a rather stretched description of Pranab's political persona, it is nevertheless a political reality that from 1977 to 1998 -- when an increasingly cornered Mamata Banerjee left the Congress to form the Trinamool Congress -- the Congress in the state had been gradually reduced to a mere poster party incapable of leading any political movement against Left rule. It remains difficult to explain why Pranab, as one of the leading lights of the Bengal Congress, allowed such a thing to happen at all.
Many read into such inaction and thumb twiddling the signs of a political quid-pro-quo. Pranab's hobnobbing with the Communists has now become part of Bengal's political lore and to a great extent lies at the root of the recent public tussle between Mukherjee-Banerjee that Delhi witnessed. Banerjee the uncompromising anti-Communist has always looked upon Mukherjee as the perennial Communist-accommodator and therefore as one who stands opposed to all that she professes to stand for.
Such are his equations with the Left that even after Prakash Karat forced a pull out over the Indo-US nuclear deal, Pranab still found their ear and continued eulogising Karat as the ideological purist and the ever courteous Communist. That perception and the decades old equation may come in handy now when the Left is finally sitting to decide on its support to Pranab's candidature for the presidency.
Basu would have perhaps reminded his comrades not to commit another 'Himalayan Blunder', Kalyan Roy, had he been there would have surely seconded that thought. Let the Communists, thus, seriously consider whether they can support Pranab, at least for one last time -- openly!
Anirban Ganguly is associate fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation.