New Delhi: One fine evening in 2011, at the Talkatora Road residence of a Union minister in Lutyens’ Delhi, some senior journalists were savouring hilsa fish, when one of them, the editor of a Hindi daily, turned to the host. “Sir, yeh Sardar ji se desh nahin chalega,” he began.
The others at the dining table turned and looked at him in disbelief and dismay, as he was running down then-prime minister Manmohan Singh. The host’s face also turned red: “Mr (name redacted), do you realise you are talking about the Prime Minister of India? How dare you talk about him like this? You must show respect.”
The livid host was then-finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, and his sharp political brain couldn’t have missed what the journalist was insinuating.
The UPA-II government led by Manmohan Singh was facing flak for policy paralysis. Mukherjee was always seen as the prime minister-in-waiting, ever since the assassination of his patron, Indira Gandhi, in 1984, when there had been speculation that Mukherjee himself wanted to be interim PM. Mukherjee himself, and many others privy to the deliberations, clarified to the contrary later.
But the rumours seemed to sow the seeds of doubt in Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi. So, although Mukherjee’s name was the first on the list of ministers that Rajiv sent to President Giani Zail Singh for the swearing-in ceremony on 31 October 1984, his name went missing from the list when Rajiv’s council of ministers was sworn in two months later, after Lok Sabha elections.
Mukherjee wrote in the second part of his memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996: “All I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me.”
‘The man who knew too much’
The title of Pritish Nandy’s interview with Pranab Mukherjee for The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1986, The Man Who Knew Too Much, led to his expulsion from the party. Mukherjee founded the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress and spent three years in the political wilderness before returning to the parent party.
The trust deficit between ‘the man who knew too much’ and the Gandhi family, which started during Rajiv’s time, seemed to linger on. The fact that Narasimha Rao, who had no love lost with the Gandhi family, had appointed him deputy chairman of the Planning Commission didn’t help his cause later. That’s despite the fact that Mukherjee was one of the brains behind the drama at the Congress Working Committee meeting in March 1998, in which then-party president Sitaram Kesri was ousted to make way for Sonia Gandhi.
The pipe-smoking politician loved to recount why Indira Gandhi trusted him so much: “She would say ‘you hit Pranab with a hammer on the head and all that comes out is smoke’.” But that’s all he would say; he wouldn’t reveal a word about Indira Gandhi. He later stopped smoking, but maintained that reputation, regardless of who he worked under, as the editor found out at the 2011 dinner.
Mukherjee’s party colleagues remained wary of ‘the man who knew too much’. Every time he would tell reporters how he maintained a daily diary and would use the contents in his autobiography, it would make many Congressmen anxious. They were relieved when Mukherjee, a few days after the UPA nominated him as its candidate for President of India, told reporters in response to a query that he had lost those diaries.
“I had kept those diaries in my Greater Kailash house. It got flooded due to heavy rains and those diaries were washed away,” he explained with a cryptic smile. He wrote his memoir in three parts later, but the juice was gone with those diaries.
If only Mukherjee had made soft copies of those diaries! But that was not to be, because it was only after he entered Rashtrapati Bhavan that he decided to learn how to use a laptop. He was not even comfortable sending SMSes — he would often ask his office staff to type out those text messages from his mobile and give him a printout.
He was probably the only President of India whom one could call directly on his mobile phone. When a reporter asked him whether it was OK for the President to carry his phone, he replied, in jest: “When the Constitution was being drafted, there was no mobile and so there is no bar.”
UPA’s Rahul Dravid
Mukherjee was the UPA government’s Rahul Dravid or ‘The Wall’, as Congress leader Salman Khurshid once described him. He was the ‘consensus builder’ and ‘crisis manager’ in the party and the government, who headed over 90 groups of ministers (GoMs) at one point, devised the government’s parliamentary strategy, and coordinated with UPA constituents and opposition parties. He was part of every important committee that dealt with politics and governance — the UPA-Left coordination committee, the Congress Core Group, the Congress Working Committee, and so on. Yet, he was destined to remain No. 2 in the government.
In his memoirs, he hinted that he was expecting to be nominated by Sonia Gandhi as the PM after she herself declined the position in 2004. “Within the Congress party, the consensus was that the incumbent must be a political leader with experience in party affairs and administration. The prevalent expectation was that I would be the next choice as Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi declined,” he wrote.
The rest is history. He was reluctant to join Manmohan Singh government but relented after Sonia insisted that he would be “vital” to its functioning.
Again, in the run up to the 2012 presidential election, Mukherjee had the “vague impression” that if Sonia Gandhi selected Manmohan Singh for the presidential office, “she may choose me as the Prime Minister” (in 2014). He revealed it in the third part of his memoir, The Coalition Years: 1996-2012.
Mukherjee believed the number 13 was lucky for him. He was married on 13 July; lived at 13, Talkatora Road; his office in Parliament was Room No. 13. Though Mukherjee never publicly regretted it, his belief in the number 13 must have been shaken a bit when Manmohan Singh became the 13th Prime Minister of India in 2004. But then, he became the 13th President of India eight years later.
No interest in cinema
Pranab Mukherjee was an avid reader but had little interest in cinema. He watched Aamir Khan’s Rang de Basanti in 2006 in his capacity as India’s defence minister, as the armed forces had issues with some of the scenes. The last film he had watched before that was Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958).
Actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna wasn’t aware of this when he was first elected to Parliament on a BJP ticket, so he rushed after Mukherjee while the latter was walking towards his office in Parliament.
“Sir, I am Vinod Khanna,” the actor kept repeating, but Mukherjee wouldn’t care to stop and see. As Mukherjee reached the office door, a desperate Khanna tried again: “Sir, I am Gurdaspur MP.”
Mukherjee suddenly stopped and turned around: “Oh, welcome, welcome. Please come.”