The other side of Pranab babu

Updated on Aug 31, 2020 07:36 PM IST

An avid reader, and history lover (World War 2 was his favourite part of history), Mukherjee was a foodie till he turned 40 and resorted to a diet — chapatis that were only slightly larger than drink coasters.

Former President Pranab Mukherjee during an event at Mavalankar Hall, in New Delhi. Mukherjee passed away at the age of 84 on Monday.(PTI)
Former President Pranab Mukherjee during an event at Mavalankar Hall, in New Delhi. Mukherjee passed away at the age of 84 on Monday.(PTI)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

Chowdhury Charan Singh brandished sheets of paper in the Lok Sabha, read out what he termed as the forthcoming union budget and accused then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of leaking the sovereign document to the International Monetary Fund (a three-letter abbreviation but a four-letter word back at the time).

Gandhi panicked momentarily and summoned her finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who was in the other House of Parliament. Mukherjee came, heard Singh for a few seconds and turned to Gandhi to reassure her that things were under control.

After Singh’s tirade ended, Pranab spoke briefly: “What you read is correct, but you didn’t see the date of the speech. It is my last year’s speech,” the young finance minister quipped and the Congress benches erupted into laughter.

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Mukherjee, India’s politician for all seasons was close to Gandhi, but his decision to contest the 1980 Lok Sabha polls irked her. After the results came out (and Mukherjee lost miserably) a furious Indira Gandhi dialled him at Kolkata to say, “Everyone knew that you will lose. Even Geeta (as friends called Mukherjee’s wife) knew it. But still you went ahead and created trouble for me.”

Two days later, another call came. This time, Sanjay Gandhi spoke: “Mummy is very angry with you. But she also said, ‘There can’t be any cabinet without Pranab’. Take a flight for Delhi tomorrow.”

In later years, when the rest of Lutyens’ Delhi was asleep, Mukherjee would narrate these stories -- immaculate portraits of his past with minute details (he even remembered what Gandhi ate when she met Margaret Thatcher for the first time).

Gandhi, Mukherjee’s political mentor, also told him to appoint a teacher to improve his English accent. He refused saying, “Madam, what is done cannot be undone. Don’t try to make a square out of a circle.”

His Hindi was worse, even after spending five decades in Delhi. Mukherjee’s adversaries in Congress once approached then PM Narsimha Rao to shunt him to a gubernatorial role in UP. Rao told them, “As it is half of our vote base has gone to Mulayam Singh Yadav. If Pranab goes to UP, the remaining voters will also run away when they hear his Hindi.”

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An avid reader, and history lover (World War 2 was his favourite part of history), Mukherjee was a foodie till he turned 40 and resorted to a diet -- chapatis that were only slightly larger than drink coasters.

But when then railway minister Lalu Prasad boasted about the mangoes and lychees of Muzaffarpur at a UPA cabinet meeting, Mukherjee couldn’t remain silent. “You are wrong. The best mango and lychee are found in my electoral district of Murshidabad,” he announced. And as proof of the pudding, he started gifting specially packed mangoes and lychees to all his ministerial colleagues, allies— even key opposition leaders—every year to build a consensus on Murshidabad mangos.

In the Congress, his favourite juniors were Shashi Tharoor, Kapil Sibal, Jairam Ramesh, Kamal Nath and Ghulam Nabi Azad. When Tharoor landed in trouble over his “holy cow” tweet, Mukherjee came to his rescue but also cautioned him : “This is the Congress party not circus party”. He disliked socializing in the Delhi circuit and listed that he had attended just one personal dinner in Delhi -- hosted by Sibal. He backed Kamal Nath on several key issues but when Nath argued for almost 15 minutes at a cabinet meeting for adding Chhindwara to Aspirational Districts’s list, an exasperated Mukherjee stopped him, “Kamal, this is the union cabinet, not your gram panchayat meeting.” He called Ramesh “Joyram” and Pawan Bansal, his junior minister in finance, as “a boy”.

For the chief trouble-shooter of the party, number 13 was, surprisingly, a lucky number. He got married on July 13; both his residence at Talkatora Road and parliament office were number 13; and he was the 13th person to become the President of India.

Mukherjee’s wife put her foot down to proposals to shift home after he became defence minister. But the small bungalow at 13, Talkatora Road was the big world of strategies and policies. Left-UPA meetings on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, phone calls with world leaders, interacting with top industrialists and even drafting key party documents like amendments of the Congress’ Constitution—all happened in that bungalow. Mukherjee was famous for working till late at night but once told Montek Singh Ahluwalia, “I can read files till 2 am but as soon as I start reading Planning Commission reports, I fall asleep.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES | Pranab Mukherjee recalls how Rajiv Gandhi became PM after Indira’s death

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was once his next-door neighbour when they both lived near Safdarjung road. In an interview to HT after Vajpayee’s death, Mukherjee described how Vajpayee asked his late wife, Suvra Mukherjee, to oversee all preparations for Vajpayee’s foster daughter Namita’s marriage. The late Biju Patnaik would at times drop in to relish Hilsa fish at the Mukherjee household and even offered a recipe for Hilsa.

Pranabda couldn’t use a computer. His pastime revolved around books. And Aamir Khan’s Rang de Basanti was the first Hindi film he watched. Then censor board chief Sharmila Tagore was hesitant as the film involves revenge on India’s defence minister. She wanted Mukherjee to watch it first.

Mukherjee, then defence minister, watched the first half and left the Mahadev Road theatre, telling a bewildered Khan and Tagore: “My job is to protect the country, not give censor certificate to films.”

The next, and possibly his last, Hindi film was Piku. He invited Lal Krishna Advani, a film buff, to Rashtrapati Bhavan to watch the film that revolved around the relationship between an aged father and his daughter—a theme that played out in both the leaders’ daily lives too.

Over 18 years since this writer’s first meeting with Pranab babu, he has been the source of many everlasting memories, some avuncular raps on the knuckles, and a witnes to a deeply embarrassing moment -- the rendition of a lesser-known Rabindrasangeet mid-air in the Presidential flight. It didn’t go well

Always eager to pursue knowledge, Pranab Mukherjee called this writer to his suite on the return flight and announced that he had got someone to download the song so that he could memorize its lyrics.

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