That was a speech of sadness,’ Pranab Mukherjee, seated behind a teak wood table in his book-lined study, tells me. ‘When I look back, the one thing that strikes me is that the last fifty years of my life have revolved around these magnificent buildings of Parliament—this temple of democracy. When I first entered here on 13 July 1969—the day the monsoon session of Parliament began—I had no identity. Nobody knew me. All I had was a piece of paper—as a certificate of my election to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal—given to me by the Secretary of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. So, when I gave my final speech here, I looked at the audience sitting in front of me and it had members of Parliament, members of the Union Cabinet, state chief ministers, governors of states and representatives of the diplomatic corps from various countries. That day no one asked me, as the security people of the Rajya Sabha once did forty-eight years ago, “Who are you?”’
As a former President, Pranab Mukherjee has now stepped away from active political life but remains extremely relevant. In a political surprise, India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, was given to the lifetime Congressman by the Modi government, the announcement coming just a day before Republic Day in 2019.
‘Prime Minister Modi called to ask for my acceptance at 6 p.m. on 25 January,’ Pranab Mukherjee tells me of the rare honour. ‘He told me the normal practice is for him to come personally and take my consent, but he was busy with the visit of the South African president on the eve of Republic Day. However, the prime minister wanted the Bharat Ratna to be announced on that same evening, for Republic Day, and he needed my assent before he could advise the President to issue the notification. “The President is waiting for my call with your approval,” Mr Modi said to me. So, I gave my consent,’ he says, smiling as he recalls how he told no one till the announcement came from Rashtrapati Bhavan. ‘My daughter, Sharmishta, who lives with me, was very angry with me. She said—“You are awarded the Bharat Ratna and you are behaving as if nothing has happened, you didn’t even tell me.” I said, I was waiting for the formal notification. “What is a notification, why did you need to wait, surely if the prime minister of India calls you, there is no doubt,” she shot back,’ he laughs.
‘What about the political messaging,’ I ask, ‘the fact that a BJP prime minister chose you?’ ‘I feel this is a larger recognition, not a recognition of an individual,’ he replies. ‘In fact, in this case, I entirely agree with Rahul Gandhi. I felt this was one of the best tweets that ever came complimenting me, when he tweeted shortly after the announcement— “Congratulations to Pranab Da on being awarded the Bharat Ratna. The Congress takes great pride in the fact that the immense contribution to public service and nation building of one of our own, has been recognized and honoured.” This is the recognition of one of our man’s contribution,’ Pranab Mukherjee says. ‘That means a recognition of a Congressman’s contribution. I take it in that way.’
A strong message of where his loyalties lie conveyed with the greatest subtlety by a political strategist who has often kept his own party guessing. ‘So, you didn’t find a certain irony in this?’ I ask. ‘No, not at all,’ he replies. ‘I also gave it to Atal Behari Vajpayee as President in May 2015. In fact, the Bharat Ratna is the only award in India which the President decides (in consultation with the prime minister). All the other Padma Awards have an elaborate process of selecting candidates, volumes of names are gone through, then there is a home ministry committee to review these names and all kinds of clearances needed before a shortlist is made for the prime minister and the Cabinet to approve.
‘The Bharat Ratna is meant to be decided by the President, however when I was President, I had resolved to go by every advice of the Cabinet. So, when Mr Modi proposed to me that Mr Vajpayee should be given the Bharat Ratna in 2015, I agreed with him, but I also suggested that someone else too should be given the award, perhaps posthumously. It was then that the late Madan Mohan Malaviya’s [freedom fighter, educationist, founder of Banaras Hindu University and the Hindu Mahasabha] name was also proposed, and I accepted.’
‘In fact,’ he continues, ‘in 1977, when Morarji Desai became prime minister, he said all these government awards are bunkum, he was totally against it, so they were scrapped. In 1978 and 1979, there were no awards. Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister twelve days before 26 January 1980. I was a minister in her Cabinet and the leader of the Rajya Sabha. Indira Gandhi and I were sitting together in the Rajya Sabha when she told me, Pranab, I want to start the Padma Awards again. I said there is no time to shortlist names for the Padma Awards before Republic Day, we can however choose a Bharat Ratna but it must be a person who is most distinguished. We discussed some names, then finally I said, why not Mother Teresa? Indira Gandhi jumped at it, saying, “What a good idea”, but I cautioned her. We had to find out whether Mother Teresa was still an Albanian citizen or an Indian citizen because the Bharat Ratna can’t go to a foreigner. When I checked, the officials told me, Sir, she is an Indian citizen, her name is being considered for the Padma Award. I laughed and said, forget the Padma Awards, she is getting the highest award of India. It was a choice that was welcomed across the board,’ Pranab Mukherjee recalls. ‘Only one award was given in 1980 but then the whole process started again.’
From choosing Bharat Ratnas to awarding them and now receiving one in his own right, life has come full circle for Pranab Mukherjee, a reflection of his eclectic political journey.
This excerpt from Defining India Through Their Eyes by Sonia Singh has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.