Pranab Mukherjee: PM Modi’s mentor from Bengal’s Miriti
A day before he demitted office on July 25 in 2017, then President Pranab Mukherjee received a letter that read, “…Three years ago, I came to New Delhi as an outsider. The task before me was huge and challenging. In these times, you have always been a father figure and a mentor to me. Your wisdom, guidance and personal warmth have given me greater confidence and strength.”
The letter was from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mukherjee posted it on Twitter with a message that the letter “touched my heart!”
Modi who after the historic victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections spoke about being an outsider to not just Delhi politics, but to politics per se; put on record how Mukherjee’s “intellectual prowess” helped his government. He also referred to Mukherjee’s “affectionate, caring” side, calling to ask about his health and well being at the end of the day.
The Modi-Mukherjee equation was that of camaraderie; unlike the relationship between a President and a Prime Minister, which is dictated by protocol and defined by the boundaries of courtesy. Associates of both the leaders say there was an ease in their relationship. There was no evident friction here that was unmistakable between KR Narayanan and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government or APJ Abdul Kalam and the Manmohan Singh government.
“The personal equation between Mukherjee and Modi was excellent. There was mutual respect. The PM valued Mukherjee’s experience and the President valued Modi’s vision. The friction that was evident between PMs and Presidents in the past was totally missing. There was an understanding between the two. Whenever Mukherjee wanted to say something, he did so with empathy and without acrimony,” said former minister and author MJ Akbar, whose book was released by Mukherjee in February this year.
The acquaintance that was made much before they came to occupy the two most important addresses on Raisina Hill; Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President and Modi in South Block, where the Prime Minister’s office continued even when Mukherjee retired to a private life.
On May 28, 2019, two days before he was sworn in as Prime Minister for the second time, Modi called on former President Pranab Mukherjee at his 10 Rajaji Marg residence and tweeted about his meeting. “Meeting Pranab Da is always an enriching experience. His knowledge and insights are unparalleled. He is a statesman who has made an indelible contribution to our nation. Sought his blessings during our meeting today,” the PM wrote.
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In the photographs accompanying the tweet, Mukherjee, known for his reserved, even stern demeanour was seen offering sweets to Modi, in the traditional Indian way of felicitation or celebration.
“The bonhomie between the two was different; they showed reverence for each other’s leadership qualities despite being from different political ideologies. Mukherjee recognised Modi for being a mass leader and Modi respected his political acumen and long political innings. Mukherjee worked like a statesman and worked with the (NDA) government just as he did with the previous one (UPA), shedding his party affiliation,” said Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies.
Easy working ties
The Presidential assent to the recommendations for the imposition of President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand; his approval for the big-ticket Goods and Services Tax (GST), an initiative he had tried to implement as finance minister were seen as politically expedient decisions. For the critics of the BJP government, these were also tell-tale signs of Mukherjee, a veteran Congressman deviating from the Nehruvian political thought that he belonged to. But Mukherjee followed the copybook to the T.
“Mukherjee was a stickler for the Constitution and understood it in letter and spirit. Having been in several Cabinets he knew there was no room for irresponsibility on the President’s part in this equation,” said Akbar.
An associate of Mukherjee who did not wish to be identified said the former President who was elected from Gujarat to the Rajya Sabha from 1981-1987 was familiar with Modi’s vision and working style. “Even as the chief minister of Gujarat he had several interactions with Mukherjee as finance minister. There was clarity on administrative and governance issues, but it did not stop Mukherjee from stating his views on the contemporary polity; social issues or when communal amity or nation security was under threat,” the associate said.
The associate also said that the President did not demure from asking questions and “grilling ministers and bureaucrats” about the intricacies of what was put before him.
While the working relation between Rashtrapati Bhavan and the government was marked by the absence of public quibbles; there were disagreements.
Mukherjee himself let it be known that there were “key divergences” between him and the PM. “Surely there have been divergences of views, between me and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We have been able to keep those divergences, if there be any, only to ourselves. It did never find any place anywhere and did not affect the relationship between the President and the PM, between the titular head and the actual head of administration and council of ministers,” he said speaking at the release of the book, ‘President Pranab Mukherjee - A statesman’.
However, the message that Mukherjee wanted relayed was done without discordant exchanges between Rashtrapati Bhavan and the government.
In January 2015, the Modi government was reproached for overlooking legislative processes. The government’s push for promulgating as many as 10 ordinances to sidestep the opposition to key policy changes in the Rajya Sabha, led to Mukherjee reminding the government that it has limited powers to issue ordinances.
Two years later, in March 2017 when protests between students in Delhi University’s Ramjas College spiralled into the streets, Mukherjee firmly pointed out there is no room in the country for the “intolerant Indian”. “There must be space for legitimate criticism and dissent,” the President said speaking at a lecture in Kochi. At the same event, he chided politicians for betraying the trust of people and showing disregard for legislative processes.
Speaking at the launch of a newspaper, he underlined the need for introspection after reports of mob lynching poured in. “Are we vigilant enough to save the basic tenets of our time? I believe that vigilance by citizens and the media can act as the biggest deterrent to forces of darkness and backwardness… Posterity will demand an explanation from us about what we have done. I raise this question within myself,” he said.
In the backdrop of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Mukherjee who was then not the President anymore while delivering the second Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture, reminded the government that numerical majority in elections gives the right to make a stable government, but the lack of popular majority forbids it from becoming a majoritarian government.
BJP’s national vice president Vinay Sahahsrabuddhe said the PM’s “ability to forge relationships” played a key role towards the absence of acrimony in working ties. “Contrary to the impression, he has had cordial relations with leaders across party lines. For instance, Mamata Banerjee with whom he has friendly ties, the political barbs aside,” he said.
Bharat Ratna and Sangh
Mukherjee’s decision to attend the third year Sangha Shiksha Varga (SSV) as chief guest at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur in June 2018 stoked a political controversy. The Congress, which has been ideologically opposed to the Sangh was at a loss to explain the decision; though senior leaders and his former cabinet colleagues Jairam Ramesh, P Chidambaram and CK Jaffer Sharief made public entreaties to skip the function.
As pressure from former party colleagues mounted, Mukherjee told a Bengali newspaper, “…Whatever I have to say, I will say in Nagpur. I have received several letters, requests and phone calls, but I haven’t responded to anyone yet.”
In Nagpur, he visited the Sangh founder KB Hedgewar’s home and in the visitor’s book described him as “a great son of Mother India”. Later addressing the volunteers, he spoke about diversity, pluralism and co-existence.
“We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. These have been a part of our collective consciousness for centuries. Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity,” he said.
The criticism did not stop. The Sangh stop-over was seen by many as a precursor to the highest civilian honour bestowed on Mukherjee in 2019, when the government announced the Bharat Ratna for him, Sangh ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh and Assamese bard Bhupen Hazarika.
The award was also perceived as an election ploy—BJP’s bid to woo the voters by picking the man from West Bengal’s Miriti for the top honour to a political masterstroke—a snub to the Congress, which overlooked Mukherjee for the PM’s post twice.
The BJP dismissed the conjecture, pointing out that it disregarded political and ideological differences to honour the former President. “Former President Pranab Mukherjee ji was conferred Bharat Ratna by BJP government for his contribution. We did not consider the party he was affiliated with,” Union home minister Amit Shah said in response to the criticism.
Alok Kumar, the international working president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who played a key role in Mukherjee’s presence in Nagpur said meetings between RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat—there were several—and the former President were always cordial and conversations centered on areas of common interest. “He was a perfect gentleman and a great host and knew how to cultivate and respect relationships. Even though he had been ideologically distant from us, he did not compromise on his own ideology but found common points and a way to walk together on that common ground. He could take everybody along,” Kumar said.
The Modi government’s decision to not show up for the Iftar hosted by the President Mukherjee was seen as a snub. It was probably the only time that the government failed to show up for an event hosted by the President.
The fact that it was a month before Mukherjee’s presidency ended had little effect on the BJP; which has chosen to dispense with the practice of government functionaries hosting Iftar.