Pranab Mukherjee, an Indian politician who rose to high office alongside one of India’s longest-serving prime ministers, Indira Gandhi, died on Monday at a hospital in New Delhi. He was 84.
His death was announced on Twitter by his son Abhijit Mukherjee.
Before undergoing brain surgery in recent weeks, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee announced on Twitter that he had also tested positive for the coronavirus. He was later put on a ventilator and slipped into a coma, according to doctors who were treating him at a military hospital.
Though Mr. Mukherjee never became prime minister, the top post in India’s government, his ability to build consensus on contentious issues earned him the title of the indispensable man of India’s coalition-era politics. He played a major role in the government of Mrs. Gandhi and the political career of her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.
In 2012, Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Indian National Congress party, cleared the way for Mr. Mukherjee to become president, a largely ceremonial job, while passing him over for the chance to be prime minister.
Many Indians see the Congress party as a protector of the nation’s founding secular values, a feeling that has become more prominent since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But the party remains tied to the Gandhis, who are often perceived as a symbol of India’s Anglicized upper class.
Mr. Mukherjee fit right in. Born on Dec. 11, 1935, in the small village of Mirati in India’s West Bengal state, he was a college teacher and a journalist, and his father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, was a Congress leader himself. His mother, who went by the single name Rajlakshmi, was also involved in politics.
Mr. Mukherjee quickly rose through the ranks to become one of Indira Gandhi’s closest lieutenants. He was criticized for being a loyal supporter of Mrs. Gandhi, and for playing his own small part in her government’s decision to send dozens of political dissidents to prison.
Decades later, Mr. Mukherjee wrote in a memoir about those tumultuous years, acknowledging that as a junior minister he had not understood “its deep and far-reaching impact,” and that the party ultimately paid a heavy price for it.
In 1980, Mrs. Gandhi picked Mr. Mukherjee as her finance minister. That would define his long political career, cementing his position as an important party leader for decades to come.
After Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, he viewed himself as her rightful successor. Mrs. Gandhi, however, had chosen her son Rajiv Gandhi to become the next prime minister.
Sidelined by Rajiv Gandhi, Mr. Mukherjee left to form his own party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. But in 1989 he folded it into the Congress party after it failed to garner much support in West Bengal, his home state.
The party welcomed him back, and over the next few years Mr. Mukherjee became the chief architect of Sonia Gandhi’s ascent to power. From then on he held several cabinet posts, from foreign affairs and defense to finance, and served on numerous key committees. He was called upon routinely to break political logjams or defuse controversies.
Under India’s Constitution, the president holds some meaningful powers, including the right to grant clemency to prisoners. During his five-year term, from 2012 to 2017, Mr. Mukherjee rejected 42 mercy pleas out of a total of 49 from prisoners on death row.
In 2019 he was awarded India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, for his public service over five decades.
In his final address as president, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee said that he had received “much more” from the country than he had given, and that India’s foundation as a pluralistic society was what made it the world’s largest democracy. “The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance,” he said.
In a statement on Twitter, Mr. Modi praised Mr. Pranab Mukherjee as “a towering statesman” who was “admired across the political spectrum and by all sections of society.”
After stepping down as president, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee continued to play an active role in public life, often delivering speeches in which he liberally quoted Mohandas Gandhi.
“I have no hesitation in stating that the ideas of truth, openness, dialogue and nonviolence espoused by Gandhiji provide the best way forward for a world confronted with intolerance, bigotry, terrorism and xenophobic politics,” he said in a lecture in 2019.
In one of his last speeches, in December, he spoke about the importance of press freedom. “Democracy without a free press is like a blank piece of paper,” he said.
“We ought to remember that democracy will be the loser when and if we cease to hear voices other than our own.”