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Pranab Mukherjee, the President I knew

By Devender Singh Aswal
Pranab Babu, as he was reverentially known, has made the exit from this world at the age of 84. He was the 13th President of our Republic. Thirteen was his lucky number as, before his election as the President, he preferred to stay at the 13 Talkatora Road Bungalow, a lower type of accommodation despite his entitlement for the highest type. He was the strategic thinker and ace mediator of the Congress yet, the vestige of Rajiv Gandhi’s distrust and his sharp intellect and independent mindedness, perhaps, stood against him. As some journalists rued, he was ‘the best Prime Minister that India never had’. Yet, his forbearance and invaluable service to the Congress and the nation was eventually recognised and the Congress anointed him as the President. The 16th Lok Sabha saw a power transition and President Pranab Babu administered the oath of office and secrecy to Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Soon, the going went stronger between the President and the Prime Minister of the day due to the courtesy and consideration shown to the former. He remained aloof and apolitical in accordance with the constitutional convention and the high traditions of presidential office.
As a parliamentary official, I was privileged to watch and observe him closely for over three decades. He came into the close contact of Mrs Indira Gandhi during the Bangladesh liberation war for his suave diplomatic skills and extraordinary perseverance, and gradually rose to become her Commerce and Industry Minister and, later, Finance Minster. But, he was sidelined by Rajeev Gandhi due to certain misgivings and political intrigues. PV Narasimha Rao rightfully rehabilitated him as Dy Chairman, Planning Commission, and later as the External Affairs Minister. He was not a popular political leader as such but was regarded highly by leaders across the political spectrum. LK Advani observed once in the Lok Sabha rather sarcastically during UPA II on ‘what would have happened to the Congress without Pranab Da’, as he resolved the internal as well as the external crises faced by the Congress. He was known for his prodigious elephantine memory and mercurial temper. In Parliament, he was heard with rapt attention and so did he when the leaders of political parties spoke. As a seasoned parliamentarian, he would yield to the leader of the opposition if interrupted. He especially held Arun Jaitley, then leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha in high esteem and took note of his observations on finer legal and constitutional matters. He was rightly hailed as ‘the marathon man of Indian politics’. In his speeches in Parliament, he did not quote much. He was not too pedantic but pragmatic and there was a certain candour and remarkable gravitas in his speeches that made the MPs listen with rapt attention.
Once, during a floor test sought by the Congress-led UPA government in 2008 on the Civil Nuclear Deal following withdrawal of support by the Left parties, when interrupted by some opposition members, Pranab Mukherjee, flew into a rage and thundered, ‘this is not time for puns and jokes but for serious  debates’. Calm was restored instantly in the House.
He held many portfolios with great aplomb, especially that of External Affairs, Commerce and Industry, Defence and Finance. As Finance Minister, he was at his elemental best reeling out extempore facts, figures and prices of commodities and the subsidy given by the government, relying on his prodigious memory. He delivered seven full budgets and one interim budget. He was not overwhelmed or tied down by any crisis, rather, he saw and promised opportunity in every crisis. In 1982, as Finance Minister, after he delivered one of the longest budget speeches, lasting one hour and 35 minutes, Indira Gandhi quipped, ‘the shortest finance minister has given the longest budget speech’. (Of course, the longest budget speech of 2.40 hours was by Nirmala Sitharaman while presenting the Union Budget 2020-21).
I recall one incident when Pranab Mukherjee was Dy Chairman, Planning Commission. I was OSD to Sitaram Kesri, the Welfare Minister (now rechristened as Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment). The Ministry mooted a proposal for fixing Rs 50 crores as the seed capital of the National Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation for the economic empowerment of the Scheduled Castes. It was, consciously, kept a small amount as the Ministry was apprehensive that a higher amount may not be approved by the Commission. Kesri rang up Pranab Babu, elaborated on the avowed objective of the government of empowering the historically wronged vulnerable sections – Pranab Babu at once agreed and the Corporation was allocated the seed capital of Rs 300 crores.
Pranab Mukherjee was elected to the Rajya Sabha way back in 1969 on the Bangla Congress ticket which later merged with the Congress. His talent was recognised by Indira Gandhi and gradually he rose in her esteem. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha five times and to the Lok Sabha in 2004 and 2008 from the Jangipur Constituency, West Bengal, and elected as President in 2012. The Congress Government led by Dr Manmohan Singh bestowed upon him the second highest civilian award – the Padma Vibhushan in 2008. After demitting office of the President, he accepted the invitation to visit the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, leading to a fierce public debate equally divided in the “for” and “against” camps. In his address, Mukherjee underlined the ideals of pluralism, tolerance, secularism and inclusion as the core values of our Constitution and Republicanism, while elaborating on his understanding of the concepts of nation, nationalism and patriotism emanating from the philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ and ‘Sarve bhawantu sukhinh sarve santu niramaya’. The nation conferred on him the Bharat Ratna in 2019.
In 2016, when my book was released, I wished to present a copy to the President. I approached his office and, as advised, I sent a mail seeking audience. Within a week, I got the appointment. I met him on 13 October, 2016 and presented my book. He leafed through it and started discussing the functioning of Parliament and his long association with it and said that had he not become the President, he would have loved to be a parliamentarian. He added that his long career as a parliamentarian had been instructive and educative. He recalled his early days and said he entered Parliament at a time when the Rajya Sabha was full of experienced Parliamentarians and leaders of the freedom movement, many of whom were brilliant speakers.  This reminds me of the following passage of his farewell speech to the MPs, ‘My days in Parliament were further enriched by the wisdom of PV Narasimha Rao, oration of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, cryptic one-liners of Madhu Limaye and Dr Nath Pai, wit and humour of Piloo Modi, poetic discourses of Hiren Mukherjee, razor sharp repartee of Indrajit Gupta, calming presence of Dr Manmohan Singh, mature advice of LK Advani and passionate support of Sonia Gandhi on social legislations.’ He was nostalgic and glowingly referred to the autonomy of the Parliament and its secretariats as enshrined in Article 98 of the Constitution. Referring to the last chapter of my book, the Future of Democracy, he observed that it’s only a robust parliament and not a rubber stamp parliament that can secure the accountability of the executive to the legislature. He also fleetingly referred to the tenure of his predecessor Presidents and the convention of the Vice President being elevated to the President while mentioning that he became the President as a departure from the general convention. I shall always treasure the memory of those most precious six-seven minutes spent with Pranab Mukerjee, the President of the Republic.
(Devender Aswal is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and an author.)