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Ex-smoker, permanent workaholic

Pranab Mukherjee was quite a foodie in his younger days — a stark contrast from his current diet where the quintessential Bengali even compromises on fish for six months in a year. Saubhadra Chatterji tells you more about the UPA's Presidential candidate. Pranab for President

delhi Updated: Jul 22, 2012 18:55 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji

The UPA's presidential nominee, former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee was quite a foodie in his younger days — a stark contrast from his current diet where the quintessential Bengali even compromises on fish for six months in a year. In his own words, “when I was young, after finishing off breakfast, I used to ask my mother what she would serve for lunch. After lunch, I inquired about the dinner.”

Till his 50s, Mukherjee was also fond of smoking - but only pipes. Along with some cigarette-loving MPs, he formed a ‘smokers' club’ in parliament long before the anti-tobacco campaign became a frenzy and smoking was banned in most parts of the parliament including its hallowed central hall.

Mukherjee eventually gave up smoking and turned into a frugal eater. But an old habit—of working on the most important files late at night—never died. When most of his officers would be sleeping and most of his personal staff retired for the day, Mukherjee would open the files and work till 1am. After work, he turns on Rabindrasangeet on his CD player before going to sleep.

Pranab Mukherjee was born in the small village of Miriti in Birbhum district of West Bengal in 1935. His father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, was a freedom fighter and the main inspiration behind Mukherjee to join politics.

Interestingly, Mukherjee was never keen about state-level politics unlike many others and started his electoral career straight from the Rajya Sabha in 1969 as a nominee of Bangla Congress -- a splinter group of the Congress. Soon, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spotted his talent and roped him in the Congress.


The close association with Gandhi resulted in Mukherjee's steady rise in politics till 1984, when Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards.

He was with Rajiv Gandhi at a public rally in South Bengal’s Contai on the fateful day (October 31, 1984) when news arrived that Indira Gandhi has been shot by her security guards. One of the scenes that continues to haunt him till date is: Rajiv Gandhi turning to him in the car and asking, “Pranabji, tell me one thing. Did my mother really deserve these bullets?”

In 2004, after the UPA came to power, Mukherjee probably entered his busiest—and most important—phase of his career. Although he couldn’t make it to the Prime Minister’s chair, he became the defence minister and headed most of the EGoMs and GoMs. Later, Mukherjee shifted to external affairs ministry and finally, during the last few months of the UPA 1, he held the additional charge of finance ministry.

He wasn't always this indispensable for the Congress though. Mukherjee found himself sidelined in the Rajiv Gandhi government (1984-89) and formed his own political party, the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. But his stay away from the Congress lasted only five years -- he merged his breakaway group with the main party in 1989 after reaching at an understanding with Rajiv Gandhi.

Mukherjee is known for his amazing memory and knowledge of a host of issues. But though he remembers people whom he had met 10-12 years ago, Mukherjee is not very familiar with the film world.

In his entire life, Mukherjee, 76, has only seen two movies. At a function last year, he handed over an award to veteran thespian Dev Anand and later asked Mamata Banerjee, “Ayi, which are the Dev Anand movies?”

70’s superstar-turned-Lok Sabha MP Vinod Khanna once met Mukherjee in parliament corridor, “Sir, I am Vinod Khanna,” he said in introduction. Mukherjee’s expressions remained stoic. The guest reframed his introduction: “Sir, I am Vinod Khanna, member of parliament.”

“Ohhh, please come,” Mukherjee smiled warmly. “What can I do for you?”

Mukherjee has never believed in returning to the same office in which he has earlier served. But he has twice had to forego his wish—when he returned to external affairs in UPA 1 (he had been in the same office during Narasimha Rao’s regime in the 1990s) and then to the finance ministry. (he was Indira Gandhi’s finance minister in 1982-84). Mukherjee probably also nursed the ambition of occupying the country's highest executive post— that of the Prime Minister.

But now, he is all set to go a step further and become India’s 14th President.

Pranab for President