Exactly 34 years after he first became a member of the party’s apex decision-making body during the Indira Gandhi era — the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — in 1978, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee received an affectionate farewell from its current members on Monday, three days before he files his nomination papers for election to the post of President of India.
At a special meeting held at Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s 10 Janpath residence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged that Mr. Mukherjee’s departure for Rashtrapati Bhavan would leave a gaping hole in the Union Cabinet:
“The Prime Minister said he had huge responsibilities in government and his [Pranab’s] loss will be felt,” Congress general secretary and media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi told journalists after the meeting.
Mr. Mukherjee will officially resign from the posts he holds in the government on Tuesday. On Monday night, officials of the Ministry hosted a farewell party in his honour.
If Ms. Gandhi’s description of Mr. Mukherjee as an extremely capable person, and the CWC’s “senior-most” member, and her expressing confidence that he would win the Presidential election by a huge margin and bring glory to the country appeared somewhat muted for the occasion, her son and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi compensated for it by spending an hour in Mr Mukherjee’s North Block office immediately after the CWC meeting. “We learned a lot from him,” Mr. Gandhi said later, adding: “It is a matter of great happiness that he is going to become the President.”
Indeed, currently, Mr. Mukherjee, in addition to being Finance Minister and trouble-shooter for both the party and government, heads as many as 13 of the 27 Groups of Ministers (GoMs) and all 12 Empowered Groups of Ministers. Home Minister P. Chidambaram is second in terms of governmental responsibilities, heading 10 GoMs, while Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar heads two, and Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde head one each.
Simultaneously, Mr. Mukherjee played a critical role in all eight Cabinet committees, dealing with issues as diverse as economic affairs, parliamentary affairs, political affairs, prices, security, WTO, infrastructure and the Unique Identity Authority of India. And in the party, apart from being in the CWC, he was also a member of the powerful Core Group. Come Thursday, he will renounce all these positions.
On his part, a visibly moved Mr. Mukherjee told the CWC members that he had received far more from the party than he had given it. He had always considered himself as a true Congressman and done whatever he thought was best for the party. Recalling his long association with the CWC, he said he had met the Prime Minister as part of his farewell meetings. He thanked the party for all the cooperation extended to him and for making him the party’s Presidential nominee.
Party sources said that initially, it is likely that the Prime Minister will keep the Finance portfolio, even though the GoMs may be distributed. Indeed, at the press briefings he addressed during his recent trip abroad, Dr. Singh virtually outlined a road map for the economy. As for the long-pending Cabinet-reshuffle, the sources said it would take a while.
Others who spoke at Monday’s CWC meeting were Mr. Antony, party treasurer Motilal Vora, former Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir and senior leader R.K. Dhawan. Mr. Antony pointed out that Mr. Mukherjee would soon become the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Armed Forces.
Of the 36 CWC members and Permanent Invitees invited to the meeting, 30 were present.
Prominent among the absentees were Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, both of whom were not in town. Karan Singh, current titular Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, an aspirant for the Presidential post, and a Permanent Invitee to the CWC, was also absent.