“I like long walks,” Pranab Mukherjee said in 2012 as Union Finance Minister, noting that the Rashtrapati Bhavan had huge lawns. That was a public alert to his own party, the Congress, that he had set his eyes on the prime real estate in the national capital. As the chief troubleshooter for the UPA-1 and UPA-2 until then — at one point, he was heading more than 50 Groups of Ministers, he was the ‘other PM’. The real chair of power, the prime ministership, eluded him though it had come tantalisingly close more than once.
Having traversed the deceitful maze that New Delhi is since 1969, Mr. Mukherjee knew where power flowed from. He became the 13th President of India in 2012 . And the long walks continued even after he left office in 2017, until August 9, when he walked 8 km — four in the morning, four in the evening. He also wrote his diary as he had done every day for decades.
If his memoirs, a series of books, are anything to go by, they talk a lot without revealing much — a lot of secrets have perished with him . Unless his diaries have preserved them for posterity. His ability to keep secrets was one reason that endeared him to Indira Gandhi, who nominated him to the Rajya Sabha in 1969, when he was only 34. “Of all the things that goes into his head, only the smoke comes out,” she had said about Mr. Mukherjee, then a pipe smoker. He gave up smoking along the way but by then he had collected 500 pipes. Rajiv Gandhi cut him out of his inner circle in 1984 — somewhat similar to the manner in which Rahul Gandhi has now cut out advisers of his mother Sonia Gandhi. “Most things said about him weren’t true,” Rajiv said later about how he was wrongly advised on Mr. Mukherjee.
A raconteur who could tell not only about British parliamentary precedents but also pick up random newspaper reports such as about competitive eater Rappai of Kerala who could clean off copious amounts of food, Mr. Mukherjee had everything on his fingertips. When he was not talking, he was reading — either files or books. Recounting precedents perhaps cost him the trust of Rajiv. When they were airborne from Kolkata to Delhi on October 31, 1984 after Indira’s assassination, he told Rajiv that the most senior minister was sworn in as Prime Minister when Prime Ministers died in office twice earlier. Mr. Mukherjee said he never demanded the post for himself — an account corroborated by P.C. Alexander, a confidant of both Rajiv and Indira. But he would be in wilderness for long during the Rajiv era before being reinstated. He wrote that his conventional ways was one reason why Rajiv did not develop a liking for him. Rajiv was for market economy and computers.
From his book The Turbulent Years:
- ‘Rajiv erred in opening Ayodhya site ’
- ‘I had no hand in Manmohan’s ouster from RBI’
- ‘Attending World War II Victory Day commemorations is an insult to the Independence movement’
- ‘Centre had plans to nationalise Union Carbide plant’
Nuclear agreement with U.S.
Mr. Mukherjee was the Finance Minister in the early 1980s, and the grip over economic actors that he gained would remain handy for the rest of his life. He held the three of the four big portfolios — Defence, Finance and External Affairs. He signed the nuclear agreement with the United States in 2008. As the key interlocutor of the UPA with its allies on the issue, he carried the Left along until the last milestone. After the Left withdrew support to the government, the Samajwadi Party came to its rescue.
His knowledge and short temper intimidated all his interlocutors. He managed the two critical relationships, with Ms. Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, with sagacity and sensitivity. As Finance Minister, he signed the appointment of Dr. Singh as RBI Governor in 1982. But unlike Natwar Singh, who could never achieve a working relationship with the accidental Prime Minister and burned his own career in the process, Mr. Mukherjee put on the act of being the constant number two until he seized the title of the First Citizen. But he completely messed up one relationship — with Cabinet colleague P. Chidambaram. By then he was a prisoner of his own advisers.
Daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee lived with him in the last days though she had not accompanied him to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. His wife Suvra had passed away in 2015. His son, Abhijit Mukherjee, was elected a Lok Sabha member once but his political career did not take off. Another son, Indrajit, has no public profile.
A Bangla cultural aficionado, the former President was extremely popular in Bangladesh also. He maintained close personal ties with Sheikh Hasina.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not like him for his affinity to the State’s Left leaders and for other reasons, and she opposed his nomination as presidential candidate until the last moment. The Left supported him in the contest. Mr. Mukherjee’s ability and willingness to offer counsel to others extended to non-Congress leaders, including Narendra Modi when the latter was the Gujarat Chief Minister and after he became the Prime Minister too. Congress leaders have not been treated kindly by Mr. Modi but “Pranab da ” was an exception. Mr. Modi remained a regular visitor of Mr. Mukherjee; Ms. Gandhi too occasionally dropped in, the last time in January.
In 2018, the Government of India announced Bharat Ratna , the highest civilian honour of the country, for him. Around the same time, he addressed a gathering of the RSS in Nagpur , in a stunning reincarnation of a man who had never let his intense religiosity impede his secular vision. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had pleaded with him to address the organisation’s conclave as President, but Mr. Mukherjee waited until after he left the office. He made a speech to RSS volunteers on nationalism that had a Rashomon effect on listeners — it was an endorsement of Hindutva nationalism and a critique of it at once. One could take what one wants.
Ms. Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Congress politician, had warned him: “The speech will be forgotten, visuals will remain and those will be circulated with fake statements”.
His picture on the RSS stage, flanked by its leaders in uniform will remain part of his legacy and the history of India’s evolution. He had walked far.