On his last day as Union Finance Minister, shortly before driving down to 7, Race Course Road, to hand over his resignation personally to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee emerged from North Block around 4 p.m. into the blistering sun, climbed onto a soap box and addressed the media, expressing his readiness to “embark on a new journey.”
But it was not an off-the-cuff statement: “I … feel a tinge of sentiment at the thought of leaving behind my life as a political activist, spanning over four decades. I will miss my colleagues in the Ministry of Finance,” Mr. Mukherjee said, reading from a prepared text, adding, “And I will also miss not being stopped while getting into my car and getting out of my car in front of the Ministry of Finance by you all.”
Recalling the “great distance” he had travelled from a “remote village” in Bengal, he said, “I know that not every decision I have taken might have been right. But I have taken those decisions always keeping in mind the simple and poor people I knew from my childhood.”
At 7, Race Course Road, he spent half an hour with the Prime Minister, a man with whom his relationship goes back to the days when the latter was Governor of the Reserve Bank and he was Union Finance Minister under another Prime Minister.
Dr. Singh’s letter accepting Mr. Mukherjee’s resignation was affectionate and gracious. “Our government owes a deep debt of gratitude to you for your invaluable contribution to its work over the last eight years,” the Prime Minister wrote, adding, “It is a testimony to your extraordinary abilities and your stature in public life that you have carried an onerous range of responsibilities with ease and accomplishment.”
Acknowledging that he and his Cabinet colleagues had benefitted from his “wise counsel on innumerable occasions,” he said they would all deeply miss his presence, while expressing confidence that the country would continue to benefit from his “wisdom, knowledge and decades of experience in public life.”
Mr. Mukherjee and Dr. Singh were then joined by Union Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Pawan Kumar Bansal and Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy to discuss some of the procedural elements of the presidential election: the Prime Minister also signed one of the 50 sets of nomination papers that will be required for the formal nomination slated for June 28 before Mr. Mukherjee sets forth on a countrywide campaign.
For the 76- year-old Pranab Mukherjee, the United Progressive Alliance’s Presidential candidate, his last day as a Minister of the Union began like any other — with a morning walk on the lawns of his 13, Talkatora Road residence and his customary puja.
But even though on Tuesday, there were no “official” meetings linked to the Finance Ministry over which he presided over for the last three-and-a-half years (all the real work was wound up on Monday), he kept his other appointments — with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung, Andhra Pradesh Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan and the controversial ex- Aligarh Muslim University Vice Chancellor P. K. Abdul Aziz who had come to know Mr Mukherjee after he had proposed a branch of AMU in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district — a project which is still stuck.
Mr. Gurung, who had come to seek Mr. Mukherjee’s counsel on whether to participate in the coming Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) elections, promised the backing of his MLAs in the West Bengal assembly to support Mr Mukherjee’s bid for the Presidency. Mr. Narasimhan, who also met Congress president Sonia Gandhi, briefed Mr. Mukherjee on the political situation in Andhra Pradesh, where the Telangana movement rages on even as the YSR Congress grows in strength in the rest of the state.
Through the day in North Block, Mr. Mukherjee met officials and members of his personal staff. As officials and journalists thronged the corridor leading to his office, a steady stream entered and left: group photographs were taken, while many journalists who came in to bid farewell even got friends to photograph them, standing next to Mr Mukherjee, on their cell phones.
The tone was nostalgic: Kaushik Basu recalled that when he was appointed as the Finance Minister’s Economic Adviser, he had been concerned that he may not be able to match the punishing hours Mr. Mukherjee kept as he himself was a late riser. But he was later reassured as Mr Mukherjee’s hours of work, he said, were from 10 am in the morning till midnight!
After he met the Prime Minister, Mr. Mukherjee drove home for one more meeting with members of his personal staff: in the evening he also received telephone calls from his well-wishers — these included Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal — United Sharad Yadav. He then went to the Congress War Room on Gurdwara Rakabganj Road to discuss the strategy for his election as President before returning home for dinner.