For the long years that he was in public life, Pranab Mukherjee burnished his political savvy with sharp intellect, an exceptional sense of history, and a memory that many among his peers considered photographic.
The raconteur in him would be in full flow in leisurely “addas” at the Talkatora Road bungalow that was his home for years. An academician who strayed early into politics, his stories from the past afforded a rare peep into contemporary events. The cups of tea that came didn’t always cheer; the buffet of anecdotes did! That was the time when he smoked a pipe. He was a living specimen of what Albert Einstein wrote about the tribe: “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”
Pranab da was no Einstein, but could prove him wrong. His artful genius was evident as much after he quit smoking. When in a mood to talk, he left an abiding impression, be it public speeches or private conversations. He was outstandingly perceptive and statesmanlike when, as a minister, he addressed the Lok Sabha in a debate on Bangladeshi migrants; spoke while being the President at the relaunch of National Herald, a newspaper founded by Jawaharlal Nehru; or attended the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) function as ‘Citizen’ Mukherjee after his term at Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Each of these speeches were replete with wisdom, reflecting the world view he had inherited, acquired and enriched through his innings in politics. Of particular interest in an unflattering way was his 2018 visit to the birthplace of Keshav Baliram Hedgewar before speaking at the RSS event in Nagpur. In his remarks in the visitors’ book, he called the Sangh’s founding sarsanghchalak a “great son of mother India”.
That had several among his admirers shooting across the bow. His lesson in history to those who cared to ask was: Hedgewar, who died in 1940, was in the Congress till 1923, when he quit over the leadership’s approach to the Khilafat movement. He also had his hosts take him on as-is-where-is basis by not digressing from his Nehruvian convictions in his address at the RSS function.
Ideology apart, Mukherjee was a deeply religious man. Yet it was difficult always to discern whether democracy’s highest temple, the Parliament, was his second or first halt.
It was in fact an article on his stellar record as a parliamentarian that fetched this writer his indulgence that stayed. Highlighting the number of parliament sessions he attended without a break, HT ran the piece with the caption: “At 70, Pranab still debating”. He found apt the analogy from the gentleman’s sport of cricket. That wasn’t the least surprising. The House of Elders, where he learnt the art of debate and disagreement, was once a platform embellished by the parliamentary rigour of members such as Hiren Mukherjee, Bhupesh Gupta, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Mukherjee’s healthy regard for adversarial thought saw him break protocol as President to visit the ailing Vajpayee at his residence in 2015 to confer the Bharat Ratna.
Reminiscing his rookie phase, he often talked about the Communist duo’s scholarly interventions, their rapier wit, the eye for detail, and the prowess to persuade. That Mukherjee could acquire those attributes over time was acknowledged by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sumitra Mahajan, then the speaker of the Lok Sabha. At the farewell ceremony for him as President, she said: “You are a guru from whom generations of parliamentarian have received lessons… You are respected for your impeccable knowledge of parliamentary rules and procedures and exemplary memory of events and precedents.”
Mukherjee’s memory recall could indeed dazzle the best of minds. Having once joined in the middle of his conversation with a journalist researching for a book, I heard him recall names of Congress Working Committee members from the 1960s onwards.
He was as good with dates as with names and events. Having authored several books, he was the go-to person for politicians, academia, researchers and media persons looking for meaningful perspectives and prescient thought. As the Congress’s man for all seasons, its chief troubleshooter, his was an enviable repository of knowledge. Starting with commerce, finance, defence and external affairs, he held most key portfolios barring home.
For someone who was never home minister, Mukherjee set high standards of bipartisanism by cooperating with the Vajpayee regime as the chairman of the ministry’s parliamentary Standing Committee. His interface then with the government was Arun Jaitley, who often spoke of him in glowing terms. His institutional memory of the Congress made him an equally valuable party apparatchik. When asked once by this writer about Sonia Gandhi’s strong point as a leader, he described her as a person who “listened patiently and acted consensually”. He said that her willingness to take advice lent her the strength she needed to have her way when opinion was divided.
Mukherjee’s role model, however, was Indira Gandhi – as an administrator and the party chief. In a troubled mood once over the BJP’s “celebratory posturing” over ordinary foreign policy gains, Mukherjee made a revelation. By his account, Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq had let Indian commandos operate on his country’s soil to free an Indian Airlines plane hijacked to Lahore in the 1980s. The secret wasn’t ever let out. Why? In statecraft certain things are kept under wraps to save the helper the opprobrium at home. That leaves room for Good Samaritan diplomacy in the future.
On diplomacy, another incident comes to mind. During UPA-1 Mukherjee had assured the Left parties supporting the government from outside that they would be briefed before India signs the nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That pact was among the prerequisites for setting into motion the Indo-US nuclear deal the Communist parties opposed.
Then the minister for external affairs, he apparently was in the dark when our ambassador in Vienna signed the safeguards deal on February 2, 2009. This writer called him to ascertain his views, only to have the taste of his famous quick temper. He banged the receiver with a cryptic: “I’ve nothing to say… It’s not my job to save your job.” A couple of minutes later, a close aide of his was on the line, dictating his brief response — but not before apologising on his behalf for his angry first reaction. That Pranab da one will forever remember, and miss.