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No gripes of wrath

There's no doubt Pranab Mukherjee has a short fuse. It's probably the one quality most remembered about him. And when it blows, his anger is something to behold. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 28, 2012 23:23 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times

There's no doubt Pranab Mukherjee has a short fuse. It's probably the one quality most remembered about him. And when it blows, his anger is something to behold. But what's equally true, though less commented on, is that his anger subsides instantly and he never bears a grudge. Believe me, I should know.

My earliest memory of his short temper is the election of 1999. It happened during a recording of We the People, a programme I used to make for Star Plus long before NDTV purloined the title. Modelled on BBC's Question Time, Mr Mukherjee was representing the Congress, Ram Jethmalani was there on behalf of the BJP and, if I'm not mistaken, S Jaipal Reddy from what was left of the Janata Dal.

I interrupted Mr Mukherjee more often than he was willing to accept. Not only did this rile him, it also meant he got less time to speak than the other two. As the recording progressed, I could sense his impatience turning into irritation and then anger. As soon as it ended, he pushed back his chair and stormed out of the auditorium. By now he was furious.

"I'll never come again," he shouted as my colleagues tried in vain to mollify him. His face was puce. Rage was imprinted all over it.

That night I rang to apologise. I expected to be bawled out and anticipation of it made me nervous. That made my manner exceptionally contrite. But I was greeted by a cheerful Mr Mukherjee who had completely forgotten the incident of three hours ago.

"Don't be stupid," he said, his avuncular warmth evident and re-assuring. "You have nothing to apologise for."

Five years later it happened again. This time Mr Mukherjee was defence minister and it was an interview for the BBC programme HARDtalk India. My opening subject was allegations that he had forced through the promotion of an army officer against the wishes of the Army Promotion Board. At first Mr Mukherjee took it on the chin. But when I persisted, I could see his face colouring. When that did not stop me he started to splutter. Eventually he threatened to walk out if I did not stop.

I did and the interview continued for a further 15 minutes covering other subjects. When the cameras were switched off, I apologised for annoying him. Once again, I found his anger had completely disappeared.

"There's no need to apologise," he said, sounding genuine and by no means upset. "You were doing your job and I was doing mine." And then in a gesture I will never forget, he put his arm across my shoulder as I escorted him out of the studio to his waiting car.

The last interview I did was in August 2011, bang in the middle of the Anna Hazare crisis. I expected him to cancel but he kept his word. He asked me not to dwell on the Anna controversy for too long. I'm afraid I agreed but let him down. The full 30 minutes was on Anna.

This time he didn't show irritation and certainly didn't lose his temper. When I apologised for breaking my promise and sticking to one subject he smiled — and there's no nicer smile than Mr Mukherjee's — and said: "I knew you would. This was your golden chance."

Then, his eyes twinkling, added: "But I didn't give anything away." He was absolutely right. I may have got the interview but Mr Mukherjee was in full control of it.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jul 28, 2012 23:18 IST