President, Bharat Ratna, Cabinet Minister, ace arbitrator of knotty deals, astute politician, Pranab Mukherjee has been described by many epigraphs. But some facets to his personality stayed relatively unknown.
India lost one of its most illustrious political figures of contemporary times this week, as the distinguished Pranab Mukherjee passed away after scripting one of the most remarkable careers and an unparalleled digest of life experiences.
A Lifelong Congressman
That he was passed over for the post of Prime Minister, finally found solace in the sprawling lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan, received the Bharat Ratna, held important portfolios like Finance, Defence and External Affairs, headed maximum number of GoMs any minister of any government has done, etc., are all part of popular parables that have been widely circulated and paraphrased.
His being a lifelong Congressman, standing firm with Indira Gandhi even during Emergency, and yet stirring a hornet’s nest by attending the RSS’ most important annual event in his dusk years is also commonplace knowledge.
I (Akrita Reyar) met Pranab Mukherjee at an informal gathering on the launch of an album by Kumar Sanu, whom his wife Surva considered like her son. Pranab Mukherjee was a perfect picture of composure, civility and courtesy. He was not only very accessible and attentive, he also let his wife steal the limelight during the cultural event. Surva Mukherjee, incidentally, like Dr Manmohan Singh’s wife, was an accomplished vocal artiste, and a performer who founded the Geetanjali troupe that popularised Rabindra Sangeet. It was to Surva’s mellifluous voice that the indomitable leader turned to for relaxation, as she sang to him after dinner, as he rested on a sofa puffing his pipe.
She would regale him with a mix of Bengali folk songs and Rabindra Sangeet after he had had a complicated day involving politics and policymaking.
An Upper-Division Clerk
Pranab Mukherjee also destressed during his long rambles and while religiously penning his thoughts in his cherished diary, the notes of which helped him author a series of political semi-autobiographies. He walked and wrote even on August 10, when he fell critically ill.
Not many would know Mukherjee started his career as an upper-division clerk in the office of the Deputy Accountant-General (Post and Telegraph) in Kolkata. His childhood was spent in the remote Mirati village in Birbhum which got a road only in 1970s after he became a minister and to where he returned regularly during the annual Puja season.
As a child, Pranab was lovingly called Poltu by his parents and stood out as being brilliant even then. His siblings often wondered how he managed to buy sweets from the money which his mother handed him for purchasing vegetables and pulses, considering she always gave the exact change. Young Poltu is believed to have ingeniously quipped that while their “mother always counted the change, she didn’t weigh the ration!”
Mukherjee recalled in his autobiography how he preferred outdoor games to being cloistered in a classroom. “It could be said that between 1940 and 1945 I did not go to school, preferring instead a life of playing games, climbing trees or running along with grazing herds of cows,” he recalled.
Entry To Rajya Sabha
In 1946, however, when he was enrolled at the Kirnahar Shib Chandra High English School in Class V, which was 2.5 km from his house, Mukherjee completed the journey barefoot on an unmetalled road.
“During the rains, the entire area was several feet deep in water, I would take off my shirt and shorts and wade through the water wearing a gamccha (towel), changing back into my presentable, school-worthy attire once I reached higher ground,” he wrote.
Miles away, literally and figuratively, in Delhi, Pranab Mukherjee’s talent was spotted by Indira Gandhi who ensured his entry into the Rajya Sabha through Gujarat after he lost the Bolpur Lok Sabha elections. He quickly cemented his position and became indispensable to her. After Indira’s death, his mistake of summoning the cabinet secretary and the defence chiefs to meet him, as he and Rajiv Gandhi travelled back from Kolkata together, did him in. He was soon expelled from the Congress, possibly on the advice of Arun Nehru, before being invited back by Rajiv two years later to handle the campaign for Tripura elections.
However, the lingering mistrust with the Gandhis remained as Sonia chose Dr Manmohan Singh over him for the prime minister’s post. Pranab Mukherjee did not hesitate to admit that for him to take orders from the PM would have been incredulous and impossible, considering Manmohan Singh reported to him as the RBI governor when he was the Finance Minister, had it not been for the complete gentleman that Singh is and the courtesy and respect that Singh always extended to him.
Pranab Mukherjee was indubitably the most crucial man in the UPA, keeping together a bunch of disparate ideologies and interests. He was the party’s most able ally constructor and troubleshooter, building personal rapports with even those with whom he had a difference of opinion.
Once in the middle of a very difficult discussion with Left parties during the UPA tenure, he pulled aside Sitaram Yechury to ask him on a personal note if he should contest Lok Sabha polls. Apparently, the CPM leader, who was way his junior, told him to give it a shot only if he were confident of victory. Mukherjee tried his hand in 2004 from Jangipur and was returned as an MP. What the incident showed was that though Congress was having a tough patch with the Left, he was able to keep differences at bay when it came to personal relationships with its leaders.
Pranab Mukherjee did not often talk to media about his missed chance at becoming the PM, possibly the sourest chapter of his otherwise illustrious career. But on one occasion he told reporters, “My fate was sealed when Bengal was divided,” meaning a truncated Bengal did not return as huge a number of MPs like Uttar Pradesh did, thus reducing the value and need for a Bengali PM.
Destiny might have wronged him, but Pranab Mukherjee must have relished his tenure as the President. He had thumbed through the speeches of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, just a day before his own inauguration; as rule, always examining the precedence.
Pranab Mukherjee would always be known for his knowledge of parliamentary procedure and government policy, razor-sharp memory, statesmanship, negotiating proficiency, anecdotal tales and the ability to take everyone alone. In more ways than one, he not only became a successful lever of many a government, he also shaped India’s destiny in countless ways. His passing away is an incalculable loss to the nation. They just don’t make them like that anymore.