Pranab Mukherjee: A pipe-smoker who could read the political tobacco leaves

Way back in June 2009, at Parliament’s Gate No 4 there was an agitated argument on. A security personnel had stopped a first time MP and asked him “Who are You?” The MP was visibly angry. Right then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee alighted from his official vehicle. The MP greeted Pranab-da and then complained about how he was treated. Mukherjee first admonished the onlookers and then took the MP inside with him. Later during our afternoon ‘adda’ in his room he told us, “A similar thing had happened to me on my first day in Parliament on July 13, 1969. I was stopped by a security man and asked the same question. No one in Parliament knew me. I told the MP that he needs to earn recognition, not demand it.”

Pranab Mukherjee had earned the space and how. Around 51 years in public life, 37 years in Parliament, 22 years 9 months as minister, President for five years and Bharat Ratna in his lifetime! He was Man Friday to three prime ministers. He used the Twitter handle @CitizenMukherjee to communicate after retiring from the President’s post. But consider it a quirk of Indian politics that he could never drive up to live in 7 Race Course Road, the Indian prime minister’s residence, remaining widely regarded as “The best PM India never had.”

He ended his life’s journey barely a fortnight before the start of a delayed Monsoon Session. He had told us many times that the first time he entered Parliament was in July 1969, at the start of a Monsoon Session.

Arun Jailtey, during his stint as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha had once said, “I would like to know what’s on inside Pranab Mukherjee’s head. He has presented Union budgets on both sides of 1991. That’s before economic liberalisation and after. He has held three of the four top offices on Raisina Hill. He, as Finance Minister in September 1982 picked Dr Manmohan Singh as RBI governor. He heads 50 odd GoMs. How does he reconcile to the fact that he is not PM?”

Pranab Mukherjee was asked this question many times in interviews. Once this reporter asked him was there a reason why he will be remembered as “twice almost PM”? With customary ease, he side stepped the question. Once the interaction was over, he chuckled and said, “Indira Gandhi used to say Pranab can keep a secret. Nothing but smoke from his pipe will come out of his mouth.”

In fact, those close to Pranab relate an incident around his Bharat Ratna award to highlight his ability to keep a secret. They say on at 6 pm on January 25, 2019 Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him and asked for his consent for the Bharat Ratna. But the family heard about the award of the highest honour only when there was an official communiqué.

Much earlier, when Defence Minister, Mukherjee had narrated an interesting event about Bharat Ratna awards that underline how destiny unfolds for politicians who make a long journey. He recounted how the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai had abolished all awards including the Padma awards and Bharat Ratna.

Mukherjee had said, “Post reelection in January 1980, one day sitting next to me, Indira Gandhi had said let’s reinstate the awards. I agreed but told her there is little time before Republic Day. She asked me we need to find a distinguished personality. I thought and said Mother Teresa.”
On the day he was conferred the Bharat Ratna, he must have remembered the role he had played in restarting India’s most prestigious award.

He can be called perhaps the most powerful Number 2 ever in Delhi’s corridors of power. Between 2004 and 2012 he headed 102 Group of Ministers. Every day he would lead meets of two or three groups. If the GoMs were a unique experiment in running a disparate coalition led by a politically inexperienced PM, Pranab was the fulcrum. A Congress minister, when asked about Pranab’s status in the Cabinet, had said, “He is the shortest in the Cabinet, but the tallest in terms of stature. There is no minister Pranab-da hasn’t scolded or asked to make amends and none has ever questioned why or how.”

During one meet on the contentious Ram Setu issue, the Congress was pushed to the wall by its Tamil Nadu ally DMK which wanted the slim channel between India and Sri Lanka to be dredged for a shipping canal. During a meeting called by PM Manmohan Singh, DMK minister T R Balu aggressively pursued the case, while some Congress members tried to tell him about public sentiment around Ram Setu. A minister who was part of the meeting recounted: “After some time, Balu was speaking loudly and banging the table claiming there would be repercussions in Tamil Nadu if the project was stalled.”

The leader added: “Suddenly Pranab-da turned tomato red and asked Balu to calm down. To our surprise he said that no one should tell him about Tamil Nadu. He knows the state better than anyone in the room. There was pin drop silence. After all the PM was in the room. Pranab-da, unfazed, turned towards the PM and said ‘Sorry Mr Prime Minister.’”

Pranab was as ambitious as most politicians are. But after 2004 when Sonia Gandhi handpicked Manmohan Singh, he didn’t conspire or undermine the PM. In one of the first core committee meets after UPA came to power, Singh addressed his party senior and ex-boss as ‘Sir’. Pranab is said to have told him: “You are Prime Minister now and I shouldn’t be addressed so.”
In 2017, three years after Congress had lost power, Manmohan Singh had said at the launch of Mukherjee’s book: “He was correctly upset when I was made Prime Minister. He had a reason to feel upset, but he respected me and we have a great relationship which will continue till we live.”
In 2012, after the clamour for his nomination as President rose, Congress president Sonia Gandhi called him. Congress sources say that she asked him: “Who can be your successor to head the GoMs?”

Congress’ political opponents like Nitish Kumar or the JDU supported him to be President. That’s because even his political rivals respected his political acumen. Once when the BJP was on the warpath ready to submit notices for a discussion on an issue against a member of the Congress’ First Family in both Houses of Parliament Pranab Mukherjee called then Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj. After an hour-long meeting, the BJP announced that the notices would not be submitted. Swaraj had told BJPs core group, which included LK Advani, that since Pranab Mukherjee had requested the party should honour it.

Pranab, who at one time was known for his pipe smoking, knew how to read the political ‘tobacco leaves’. For instance in 2012, with no hope of becoming PM and UPA on a free fall, he decided to leave active politics and head for the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Many in congress say he had read the future and wasn’t ready to wait any longer.

He was the first Indian President to say that the post was political as it acted as the custodian of Indian Constitution. But he was too active a politician to settle into the protocol-bound easy paced life at the top of Raisina Hill. One of his senior staff members from defence forces once told this reporter that Mukherjee is changing how Rashtrapati Bhavan works. He said, “One day Advani-ji called seeking an appointment to submit a memorandum on behalf of Opposition parties. President was angry why the request was noted as a message. From that day if any politician called for an appointment, the call was transferred to the President. He would discuss or chat up and then fix a meet.”

Pranab had a frictionless working relationship with Modi, who, on several occasion, has thanked the President for “his guidance.” When Modi won a second term in May 2020, Pranab gave him sweets at his Rajaji Marg residence. But he criticised the government for resorting to using ordinances or executive orders which can be promulgated without Parliament’s approval as first resort.

Those who knew him have umpteen tales of what’s commonly known as Mukherjee’s “soda bottle temper”- quick to blow up and fast in calming down. But those who know him better have hundreds of anecdotes of his wry Bengali wit and timing.

In 2015, Delhi’s Chief Minister-designate Arvind Kejriwal went to President’s House to meet Pranab. Kejriwal is said to have thanked the President for his “blessings and guidance”. Mukherjee, in turn, gifted Kejriwal two books –one of them being the ‘Constitution of India.’

On June 6, 2018 Pranab Mukherjee honoured a promise made to the RSS. He delivered a speech at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. Mukherjee quoted Jawaharlal Nehru with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat sitting barely a few feet away. “Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity. It was this Nationalism that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru so vividly expressed in the Discovery of India,” he said.

Later, when some old Congressmen asked him why he agreed to accept the RSS offer, Pranab is said to have told them: “I had an opportunity to go to their den and tell them what they are doing is wrong. I took it.”



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