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.