The epithet Chanakya, denoting the qualities of Vishnu Gupta, the philosopher, teacher and adviser of the Maurya dynasty in Magadh in the third century before Christ, was first used in modern Indian politics by Sarojini Naidu to refer to C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). Chanakya-like qualities are not entirely akin to the Machiavellian ways, as India's Chanakya Niti preceded Europe's Machiavellianism by 1,800 years. The philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli of Florence, perhaps, came to denote diabolism. Chanakya Niti was draped in public good and not merely cloaked in conspiracy. The philosophy of Chanakya (also known as Kautilya) engulfed economics and political science.
Mahatma Gandhi called Rajaji his “conscience keeper”. Since the Congress session of 1922, held in Gaya, where he played the yeoman's role in bringing together consensus among proponents of different points of view and opposing the colonial rulers' move to implement the diarchal legislatures envisaged under the Government of India Act, 1919, Rajaji emerged as the Chanakya who guided the outcome of many important decisions of pre-Independence India. Post-Independence, he was the author of anti-Congress unity in Tamil Nadu. The yoke of the effect of his wrath is yet to be shaken off by the Congress. A Brahmin by birth, he masterminded the temple-entry movement in Tamil Nadu, thereby giving a new dimension to Dalit resurgence.
Rajaji was the first Indian to occupy the magnificent structure atop the Raisina Hill when he became the Governor General of India in June 1948. Like Pranab Mukherjee, he was finance minister prior to this. Since then many eminent statesmen have occupied the Rashtrapati Bhavan. They have been great scholars and strategists. But none of them could qualify to share with Rajaji the epithet Chanakya.
Mukherjee is referred to as Chanakya, though it may be better to refer to him as Vidur, the adviser who never let down the cause he served, even in the most trying circumstances.
In the last four years of Indira Gandhi's illustrious career as the leader of resurgent, modern India, she trusted Mukherjee by making him preside over the crucial Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs in her absence. Though younger in age, Mukherjee carried along in the CCPA stalwarts like P.V. Narasimha Rao, N.D. Tiwari (both of whom had been chief ministers of major states) and R. Venkataraman, who was soon to become the Vice-President and later the President of India.
Mukherjee began his political carrier in the Congress and had his grooming in the West Bengal Congress. The breakaway group which remerged within the parent party in the late 1960s was noticed by Indira Gandhi when he spoke from the opposition benches in the Rajya Sabha. His immigration back to the Congress and his subsequent rise in the party is a legend.
Before becoming a Rajya Sabha member, he came into the limelight during the Lok Sabha byelection fought by V.K. Krishna Menon. Mukherjee was entrusted with translating the speeches of the person who had created a record in oratory during the Kashmir debate at the United Nations. Some say the political idiom used by Mukherjee in his translation was so effective that it ensured the victory of a Malayali in a rural constituency in West Bengal.
When the Congress emerged after the bitter inner-party struggle in 1978, Mukherjee was rewarded with the post of Congress treasurer. Though highly trusted by Indira, Mukherjee or his wife, Suvra (who also enjoyed Indira's affection), never made a show of their proximity to the leader. Perhaps it was this low-profile attitude which was exploited by his opponents on October 31, 1984 to create a chasm between him and Rajiv Gandhi.
According to many Congressmen, including close advisers of the then President Gyani Zail Singh, Mukherjee had never opposed the candidature of Rajiv as the prime minister. His exclusion from the core team deprived Rajiv the counsel of a trusted colleague and, perhaps, increased his vulnerability when the Bofors onslaught was unleashed by yet another Chanakya, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who put together a motley coalition of disparate groups to unseat a government which had the largest ever majority in the history of India.
V.P. Singh, scion of a former royal family, began his political career in Allahabad under the tutelage of yet another Chanakya, H.N. Bahuguna, who was the protégé of G.B. Pant, a contemporary of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajaji. Pant, too, had shown Chanakya-like qualities. As the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, he had abolished Zamindari, and later as Union home minister, he presided over the formation of linguistic states.
Bahuguna was handpicked by Pant. At one stage, to counter the influence of Dinesh Singh and Chandra Bhanu Gupta in UP politics, Bahuguna picked up a group of young firebrands—V.P. Singh, Anand Singh, Zulfiqar Khan and Jitendra Prasada. Of these, V.P. Singh became prime minister and Prasada was handpicked by Rajiv and entrusted with the task of countering Singh.
When Bahuguna was pulled down as chief minister in 1976, he planned the launching of the breakaway Congress For Democracy (CFD) along with former Orissa chief minister Nandini Satpathy and Union minister Babu Jagjivan Ram. Formation of the CFD on February 2, 1977 signalled the victory of the forces opposed to the Emergency in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections. Like Rajaji, an estranged Bahuguna was a Chanakya who pulled down a Congress regime. V.P. Singh did the same a little over a decade later.
Other political leaders who can be referred to as Chanakya include former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Pandit D.P. Mishra (former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra's father), who was the kingmaker in New Delhi in the initial years of Indira's rule. Yet another former Congress chief minister who fell out with Indira and emerged a Chanakya was Orissa's Biju Patnaik.
From the opposition ranks, one person who is little known but played the role of Chanakya was Bhaurao Deoras. He made effective inroads into the thinking process in the Congress and can be credited with the present position that the BJP enjoys in national politics.
Is there an emerging Chanakya? Union minister Rajeev Shukla, who won over Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in the same breath to support Mukherjee in the presidential election and also played a role in influencing JD(U)'s Sharad Yadav, is perhaps a man to watch.
As Mukherjee prepares to move to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, will it be right to call him merely a Chanakya? The eminent scholar of the Constitutional process that he is, Mukherjee knows that the President of India has to be like Bhishma in righteousness, and Chanakya in statecraft.
Bhattacharya is former editor of Sunday.
Union minister Rajeev Shukla, who won over Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in the same breath to support Mukherjee, is a man to watch.