Pranab Mukherjee Photograph:( Reuters )
He may have been limited by his language and lack of mass appeal but Pranab Mukherjee adequately made it up by his intellect and knowledge.
Pranab Mukherjee was perhaps one of the most well-read politicians in Indian politics. His memory was elephantine and his ability to recall fact and figures was legendary. He was erudite and commanded immediate attention. He did not tolerate fools nor wasted his time on inane conversations. He was a first-time politician and rose through Congress ranks because of his grit and determination. He may have been limited by his language and lack of mass appeal but Pranab Mukherjee adequately made it up by his intellect and knowledge.
He was shot tempered but would resume his composure quickly. My first brush with the veteran leader was in 2001 when my editor sent me to interview Pranab Mukherjee on the working on the standing committees of the Parliament. I worked in a national weekly and I knew that my editor wanted me to focus on the trips which the member of Parliament took in India and abroad.
The focus was to be on educational trips becoming fun trips for the MPs. Congress was in the Opposition, so the appointment came easy, but the meeting did not last long. After hearing my half- baked questions, Pranab Mukherjee promptly handed me a fat book. If I recollect it properly, it was not less than 300 pages. He gently asked me to read the book and then come back to him. I had a deadline of 48 hours and in no way, I could finish the book, make notes with questions and go back to Pranab Mukherjee for an interview.
I told my Editor that, Pranab da has given me an impossible task but it availed no sympathy. The only consolation was that I was accompanied by my editor the next day with the book to finish the interview. I returned the book and profusely thanked him and promised myself not to ever visit him again lest I get burdened with another book reading session.
Later I understood the importance of the interaction. He made the interview an education for me. He could have disposed of me by three quotes but chose to draw me deep into the subject which politicians rarely do these days.
Though I had many opportunities to interact with him which were mostly in a group during Parliament session. Even then, an uneducated question was met with scorn. Perhaps he was the only politician whose, off the record briefings were an education in itself.
Pranab Mukherjee served in various capacities in the government. He would be known for many things. He would be known for the man who could no become the Prime Minister despite being senior because Congress could not throw the yoke of the dynasty. He was marginalized by Rajiv Gandhi and ultimately had to leave the Congress.
Pranab made a quiet re-entry into the Congress later when PV Narsimha Rao was the Prime Minister. Even during UPA, he remained a perpetual number 2. The fact is that Congress needed him, but Gandhi’s never trusted him. Pranab Mukherjee knew it. It is for this reason he opted to become the President. Despite the reluctance of the Gandhi’s Pranab Mukherjee did not give in. It was in this transition that he shined the most.
His becoming the President of the Republic marked the return of a Political President which in past decades became a house for loyalists. APJ Kalam was the exception.
He would also be known for things which are not in the public domain but would make a difference in the long run.
He revamped the President House.
Pranab Mukherjee restored the hall where first India’s Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru took the oath. I had the opportunity to see the refurnished hall. A museum was created during his tenure which was thrown open for public. The Presidential Estate was revamped, and the credit goes to him.
In end, Pranab would be known as the marking the return of the Political President who dared to speak his mind and rose above the partisan interest. He met politicians of shades and ideologies. He did not discriminate. He could not become the Prime Minister, but he did definitely shine bright as the President of the Indian Republic.