Pranab Mukherjee was never a domineering presence in Bengal politics; in fact, he was hardly a political presence in his home State at all. But his endearing persona and magnificent erudition made him, notwithstanding his strong rural Bengali accent, a highly respected bhadralok, a semi-lit pipe hanging loose from his lips being a cartoonists’ delight till he kicked the habit nearly 30 years back.
He became a trusted lieutenant of Indira Gandhi within a few years but fell out later after she was advised by former colleagues to get rid of the diminutive but highly intelligent and ambitious politician. However, realising his 360 degree skills, she reinducted him into the Cabinet and party hierarchy.
Very soon, ditto with Rajiv Gandhi who unceremoniously sacked him from his first Cabinet, only to reinstate him with full dignity a few months later. By the time he was reinducted, he had risen to a stature befitting none else. Having held the External Affairs portfolio for close to a decade, and widely reputed for his knowledge of international trade and finance, Pranab Mukherjee was the acknowledged don of complex matters on global economic matters.
Many were initially surprised that a man who rose from the ranks of a school-teacher in Midnapore, West Bengal, to stand shoulder to shoulder at the first UNCTAD in New Delhi alongside Cuban legend Fidel Castro. But over the years, he made all Indians proud of his deft handling of economy and politics. It was said that it was not possible for anyone to negotiate with a tiger to part with its skin but Pranabda would achieve that and leave the tiger smiling in the end.
A people’s leader, he loved adda (idle talk) which Bengalis enjoy for hours at end. This was a daily source of inspiration and provided an opportunity to rummage through his phenomenal memory, which stunned friend and foe alike.
On a personal note, I recall when he called me to the Rashtrapati Bhawan at the relatively late hour of 10 pm, prefacing his invitation by saying that a journalist was not supposed to sleep, or even have dinner, by 10 pm, he said he normally came home around this hour, had a bath, did puja for an hour, before sitting down for dinner. He walked me to the sitting area and over two cups of coffee we resumed our adda.
A few weeks later, I got a call from him requesting me to launch the second volume of his memoirs. Addressing a distinguished gathering seated overlooking the Mogul Gardens was an honour I will probably never get again. While leaving I asked, “Why me?” He said, “How many Oxford-educated journalists do we have in India? I have called the only one I know. I hope you groom some others after you.”
Tuesday, 01 September 2020 | Chandan Mitra