The consensus builder
A personal account in the memory of Pranab Mukherjee, a career politician who bridged gaps and led the nation through many crises in various capacities
Once a senior Congress leader told me that Pranab has a lot of layers. You needed to do your homework to understand his personality. He seemed to be a dreary person, one who remained engrossed with politics and studies for 24 hours. I am in complete agreement with Jairam Ramesh, that to understand this captivating persona of Pranab Mukherjee, one needs to understand him as a person.
Pranab Mukherjee began his prolonged political career in Ajay Mukherjee's Bengal Congress and in 1969 he was a member of the Rajya Sabha as the representative of Bengal Congress and later Indira Gandhi's eyes fell on him. How this happened, even that is a very renowned story, remembering which seems relevant on this day. It dates back to 1969, while Indira Gandhi was on the verge of nationalising the banks; when a personality like Morarji Desai was removed from his status as the Economic Minister. He was inclined towards privatisation, pushing the nation towards an open market. Indira, on the other hand, used to understand the importance of state-owned corporations and nationalisation of banks and wanted to move forward with it. It is during that time when debates were on in the Rajya Sabha, Indira Gandhi heard Pranab Mukherjee's speech. In his speech, he stated why it is necessary to nationalise the banks, contradicting those who opposed it with the fact that according to Article 19 of the Constitution, the Right to Property is the Fundamental Right of the people. The bank being private property, nationalisation should be interpreted as an intervention to the rights of the people. He mentioned that when London Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Pill, was discussing the abolition of slavery in Britain, all those who opposed it used the same sort of reasoning, claiming it as a fundamental right and therefore, untouchable. Ultimately the dissenters lost and the reason was the argument that with time, things change. Fundamental rights, much like democracy, must shift and change as well. India, according to Mukherjee, was also going through an economic transformation. Hence, there was a need to free the nation from the primitive idea of private property and bring in changes like the nationalisation of banks. This explanation of connecting slavery with the nationalisation of banks is extraordinary. Listening to this, Indira Gandhi was surprised as well as impressed. Indira Gandhi asked Om Mehta, then the Chief Whip, who is the young man who gave such a great speech. Om Mehta, after checking up on him, informed Indira Gandhi. Later, Bhupesh Gupta, the Communist leader who was close to Indira, also briefed her about Pranab Mukherjee and since then, he was under her gracious watch. Slowly, he became her favourite and later, after the merger of the Bengal Congress with the Congress, he became very close to Indira Gandhi and has since then been omnipresent in Congress, be it the era of Narsimha Rao or Dr Manmohan Singh.
Although he left Congress during the era of Rajiv Gandhi, he regretted this and stated that it was a grave mistake. When we got into journalism in 1984, at that time he had formed the Rashtriya Samajwadi Party and I used to travel with him to the electoral commission and saw his dire situation. Not many people attended the meeting yet he tried his best. Later on, even Rajiv Gandhi understood his mistake and during the Tripura's Legislative Assembly, he involved Pranab Mukherjee and brought him back to the party. Unfortunately, Rajiv Gandhi passed away. I've heard that when he was alive, he was planning on making Pranab Mukherjee the Finance Minister. He had made him the chief of the economic cell of AICC. But Pranab Mukerjee's luck did not hold out. After Rajiv Gandhi's death, Pranab Mukherjee became a crisis manager in tumultuous politics to protect the Indian democracy.
I had met Pranab Mukherjee in the year 1984 through Amiya Dutta (we used to call him Paltu da, he lived in Ramkrishnapur), President of the District Congress who joined Pranab Mukherjee's party. After that, I travelled with him to quite a few places in India and abroad. While he became the President, a major Constitutional post as the head of state, but all his life, he had carried with him the anguish of knowing that he could become the Prime Minister. When he joined the Government of Manmohan Singh, he was not very excited about it. The day Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister, he was thinking about his role in the Government because at first, there was a discussion about giving him the Ministry of Home Affairs. Later on, that got altered and he was given the Defense Ministry.
He understood that somewhere there was a deficit in the trust of the Gandhi family, a deficiency in trust which did not end till the last date. He was number two to Indira Gandhi. However, it was difficult for him to be acquiescent to any other leaders. He had worked with many leaders before and he used to tell me that whosoever is in the post, he respected the chair.
Let me share a funny incident. Once I went to Pranab Mukherjee's room and I was standing. Because he was going through a file, signing with much concentration, he didn't look up, hence I kept standing as he hadn't asked me to sit. Then looking up, he saw me and said, "Why don't you sit down? Sit down please!" Then he narrated me a story that he was reminded of as he saw me standing. He narrated that when he was the Deputy Minister of the Finance Ministry, the person who was the Finance secretary was elder to him. It so happened that once he entered and Pranab Mukherjee failed to notice him and he kept standing. When Mukherjee asked him, why was he standing, the bureaucrat then told him, "I might be senior to you by age but you're the minister and I am your secretary and according to the Constitutional protocol, I must abide by it. I will only sit if you ask me to." Then jokingly sharing the story with me, he said, "You're no bureaucrat, you're a journalist, then why are you abiding by all these protocols?"
Today, on the sudden demise of Pranab Mukherjee, many memories of his are coming back. Pranab Mukherjee as an individual was a man of incredible distinctiveness. Many are aware of him being a foodie. As much as he loved to eat, he used to fast. He used to fast on various occasions and used to perform 'Chandi path'. It so happened that even Sonia Gandhi got to know about the 'Chandi path''. This was because unless it was an emergency, he never attended any call before 10 for this reason. Congress is a secular party but the party abided by Hindu culture and hence, many used to say that Pranab Mukherjee has been maintaining the tradition of Hindu Brahmin. He had maintained the trait of 'Kamalapati Tripathi' which Congress never really paid much heed to, however Congress never dared to use terms like Hindi belt on him. Although dealing with the BJP Hindutva, Pranab Mukherjee's characteristics were composite which involved unity amongst the diversity in religion.
I've always mentioned this about Mr Pranab Mukherjee that his individuality is of consensus composition. He was never really a confrontationist. He was known as the Chanakya of Indian politics because he was a great negotiator, manipulator and everything necessary for politics, he had all of the required qualities. He was always the crisis manager. He would always find a middle ground.
He was not born with a golden spoon. His father was a freedom fighter but he did not arise from the elitist political party of India. But Mukherjee had held the highest position of India, the constitutional head. It is very difficult to find someone like him. With the experience, he had enriched himself but not with familial exposure. He had risen to this stature and became the 'Chanakya' as we named him. Throughout the ages, from Subhash Chandra Bose to Chittaranjan Das, an anti-Delhi political inclination was visible. In contrast, Pranab Mukherjee, a Bengali, became the key Bengali in major politics. I keep saying that the way Pranab Mukherjee had made it, nobody else had.
On July 25, 2012, Pranab Mukherjee stepped into the Rashtrapati Bhavan as India's 13th President. Of all the Indian leaders who went on to become the President, Mukherjee was the only one with significant political experience. He became the Foreign Minister twice, Trading Minister, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Committee, member of the working Congress Committee, etc. Apart from becoming the Prime Minister, there are hardly any major posts which he hadn't held. If today, it is ascertained how was he as the President, then I would say India had received two kinds of Presidents: Zail Singh who sat in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and unsuccessfully plotted against Rajiv Gandhi. On the other hand, the most obedient President, Pratibha Patil, who under no circumstances gave any sign of disagreement. Pranab Mukherjee was somewhere in between. He told me, 'In the Constitution, a President is a post full of splendour but as a titular head. If abiding by the Constitution, whatever the Cabinet decides, a President has to follow. If a dispute arises regarding any bill, a President may look at it to review but if the bill comes back, the President has to sign it anyway. If it cannot be changed despite showing disapproval, what is the use of any kind of protest?'. To highlight their thoughts, some of the Presidents may turn to the news media. But Pranab Mukherjee did not want to do that. He took a middle way, that is, whenever he had any objection, he used to state it to the Prime Minister over the phone. Then, the Prime Minister used to come by and a discussion used to take place. For example, he signed on the bill in favour of capital punishment because he believed by maintaining human rights, capital punishments can be maintained and he gave a verdict in favour of it although he was criticised. But in case of issuance of ordinances immediately by avoiding Parliament, he had his objections and he made them known to the PM. Many cases it so happened that the Prime Minister had even agreed to it. An incident took place in Israel during his visit. Since he became the Foreign Minister twice, him visiting Israel was not the same as other Presidents. A President can visit other countries in place of the Prime Minister if they are properly briefed. He visited Israel even before the Prime Minister. He went to Israel during his stint as the Minister of Commerce during the era of Narsimha Rao when the financial sanction was lifted. And he wished to visit Palestine as well, which was not part of the time table. Since we were never anti-Palestine, the Modi government had spoken with the Israel Government and even then, there was no objection from their end. Hence as President, he had taken up an active role without complaint or dissatisfaction. This is how our Pranab Babu was. Pranab Mukherjee means unity, a crisis resolver who had forever prioritised the voice of democracy and unity.
Views expressed are personal