Will be back as ordinary citizen, says Pranab Mukherjee on eve of presidential poll
“I will come back as an ordinary citizen of India,” President Pranab Mukherjee said at a public meeting in a Bengal town on Friday.
It shouldn’t be tough for the 81-year-old to switch roles, again. Five years ago, when he entered the Rashtrapati Bhavan as India’s 13th President he left behind a political career that was spread over 50 years.
But, he adapted well to the relative quiet of the presidential office after the hurly-burly of Indian politics. He found things that kept him busy.
First and foremost, he decided to set his house in order. Built over 17 years and completed in 1929, the Rashtrapati Bhavan is the world’s second largest presidential estate, a treasure trove of history.
Mukherjee decided to restore the house’s glory, digging deep for pieces of history stored away in many of the 340 rooms of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Every corner had a story to tell. He wanted to share the stories with the people. As the imposing iron gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan opened for people, the President decided to shed some baggage as he dropped honorifics such as Mahamahim and His Excellency.
Education is a cause close to Mukherjee who started out as a teacher. He regularly met vice chancellors and also introduced in-residence programmes for scholars and artists.
He was not averse to taking hard decisions either. Mukherjee cleared 32 mercy petitions, some of them pending since 2000. He rejected 28 of them, including those of 26/11 Mumbai attacker Ajmal Kasab and Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, the most by a president.
Two years after Mukherjee moved into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the BJP stormed to power at the Centre with a brute majority.
There were differences of opinion between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but it didn’t affect their relation, he said.
“Surely there have been divergences of views, between me and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But we have been able to keep divergences only to ourselves, that didn’t affect our relation,” Mukherjee told a gathering a few days ago.
For Modi, Mukherjee was a mentor. “In my initial days, Pranabda held my hand to help me settle in Delhi,” the Prime Minister said.
The government’s ordinance spree though was an irritant. Mukherjee, whose clearance was a must for the emergency measure, summoned ministers and questioned the need to take the ordinance route, skirting Parliament. He publically cautioned the government against pushing ordinances.
Mukherjee was quick to back Modi’s decision to scrap high-value notes but as currency shortage hit people and caused hardship, the President talked about alleviating the suffering of the poor.
He didn’t shy away from expressing his views as the Modi government battled charges of religious and social intolerance.
He spoke out on most troubling issues but when the Centre tried to topple the Congress governments in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, the Rashtrapati Bhavan was a mute spectator.
The controversial dismissal of the Uttarakhand government, which got Mukherjee’s approval, saw the Congress point fingers at him for the first time.
Party leaders said Mukherjee, who spent most of his political career with the Congress, should have been “more circumspect” and not be “led by the nose by the Narendra Modi government”.
To add to Mukherjee’s discomfort, the dismissal of the Uttarakhand government was overturned in the high court and the Supreme Court.
But, as he packs his bags and gets ready to move into 10, Rajaji Marg as his term ends on July 25, Mukherjee will probably be a contended man.
Never the destiny’s favourite child, the man from Mirati, a small village in Bengal, rose to occupy India’s highest office.
He will be remembered as the president who brought the Rashtrapati Bhavan closer to India’s people.
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