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Pranab Mukherjee — according to the Americans

Watch out of Pranab Mukherjee’s Bengali accent — this was the warning from the US embassy Delhi to their headquarters in Washington just before the then defence minister was to visit the country.

The detailed biography of Pranab Mukherjee, India’s current finance minister, also reveals the man behind the persona and comments on his tiff with Rajiv Gandhi and pitches him as a Prime Ministerial candidate.

Pranab Mukherjee’s bio — as given in a US cable dated 2005-06-21:

Pranab Kumar Mukherjee (68) is one of most senior Congress Party stalwarts and strategists, as well as a close advisor to Sonia Gandhi. Originally slated to become the Home Minister, he was given the Defense portfolio to prevent him from challenging PM Singh’s leadership. Observers of the Indian political scene believe he is positioning himself for higher political aspirations, i.e.,Prime Minister. He was elected to the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament) from West Bengal in the 2004 national elections with support from regional Left leaders, with whom he maintains close ties. A Congress Working Committee member and the Leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha, he has favored stronger ties with the US, including more economic and trade cooperation.

Lacking military experience, he relies heavily on advisors for counsel on strategic and operational issues confronting the country’s armed forces, and seems to be more involved in his other political duties (see below). He appears to be very supportive of the growing number of joint US-India military exercises, exchanges, conferences, and training. In his December 9 meeting with Secretary Rumsfeld, Mukherjee stated his desire to diversify India’s arms supply (the lion’s share of which comes from Russia), but raised the specific concern about the slowness of the US arms procurement process.

Mukherjee’s political clout is reinforced by his membership in several influential committees. He is a senior member of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and the Cabinet Committee on Security. He chairs the Group of Ministers on Patent Laws — charged with bringing India’s product patent coverage up to international standards. He is a member of the Cabinet Committee on the World Trade Organization, and heads the Group of Ministers Committee on the Dabhol dispute, charged with bringing the closed power plant back on line. He also heads the Group of Ministers investigating the alleged corruption of the previous NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government.

Before taking the Defense Minister post, Mukherjee’s experience in government was primarily in the economic area. In 2000-2001, he chaired the Congress party Economic Affairs Department and was President of its West Bengal unit. He served as Union Minister for Finance and Commerce (1993-95) in the Narasimha Rao government and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (1991-93). Working closely with the late PM Indira Gandhi, he presented three consecutive union budgets (1982, 1983 and 1984) as Finance Minister, which prompted New York-based EuroMoney magazine at that time to rate him “”one of the most innovative finance ministers of the world.””

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, Mukherjee failed to maintain good relations with Rajiv Gandhi, who expelled him from Congress in 1986, reportedly for showing too much ambition. In response, the frustrated Mukherjee launched the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress party in 1987, but it did not win a single seat in the West Bengal Assembly elections of 1987, and Rajiv Gandhi took him back into the party in 1988, considering his exit a brief aberration from a long career dedicated to the Congress party.

Born into a middle-class freedom fighter’s family on December 11, 1935 in West Bengal, Mukherjee has a Law degree and Masters degrees in History and Political Science. After a brief career as a lecturer and a journalist, Mukherjee entered politics by joining the Bangla Congress in 1966, and soon switched to the Congress party. Elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1969 and in 1975, he was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in 1980 and joined Indira Gandhi’s cabinet as an independent charge Minister for Commerce (1980-82). Mukherjee became Union Minister for Finance with additional charge of Commerce and Supply in 1982. The author of a book, “”Emerging Dimensions of Indian Economy”” (1984), he regularly contributes articles on Indian economy and politics.

A devout upper caste Hindu Brahmin, Mukherjee is married to Subhra. They have two sons and one daughter. His daughter, Sharmishtha Mukherjee, is a well-known Indian classical dancer. His native tongue is Bengali, but he is equally fluent in Hindi and English. Though articulate, he is soft-spoken and speaks with a heavy Bengali accent which can sometimes be difficult for Americans to understand.

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