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Striking a first

Long seen as the eternal number two, Pranab Mukherjee is finally looking set to take over as the first citizen of the nation. A look at the long journey of a political icon. Saubhadra Chatterji writes. 7 interesting facts about Pranab | Timeline

india Updated: Jul 01, 2012 01:15 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji

Two major changes have entered Pranab Mukherjee’s life in the last two weeks. One, of course, is that the man dubbed as ‘eternal Number Two’ (for being second-in-command to three Prime Ministers) is finally poised for the top slot — the President of India.

On top of that, Pranab Mukherjee has stopped getting angry, his close aides observed. On 13 June, hours after Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee tried to make the day unlucky for Mukherjee, clubbing with Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to announce their own set of presidential candidates, a cabinet colleague had asked him, “Are you not angry?”

Mukherjee, 77, smiled and replied, "I get angry only when there is no crisis. But when there’s a crisis, I always keep my cool."

His crisis management skills — be it for the government or the party —contributed in elevating himself as one of the most-trusted lieutenants of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Mukherjee was a blue-eyed colleague of Indira Gandhi but fell out with Rajiv Gandhi when the latter came to power. After a brief stint outside the Congress and forming his own party, Mukherjee returned to the Congress to start regaining his position of a key strategist— from scratch. PV Narsimha Rao brought him back to the union cabinet, gave him plum posts like commerce minister, foreign minister, planning commission deputy chairman and shielded him against occasional efforts of Mukherjee’s ‘well-wishers’ within the Congress to retire him.

Once a group of senior Congressmen explained at length why Pranab Mukherjee should be made the governor of Uttar Pradesh, a politically crucial state for the Congress. Rao heard them with his trademark patience, and then replied: “already 90% of our voters have gone to SP and other parties. If Pranab becomes UP governor, his Hindi skills will force the rest 10% to run away as well.”

Mukherjee learnt his political skills from his idol and mentor Indira Gandhi. Even now during any private conversation, he fondly recalls his memories of the long association with Indira ji that started after she heard one of his speeches in the Rajya Sabha in 1969.

With a childish grin, Mukherjee would say how ‘Mrs Gandhi’ repeatedly asked him not to contest the 1980 Lok Sabha poll. But he, keen to shed the perception of being a ‘rootless wonder’, fought — and lost.

In the evening a call came from Delhi at his Kolkata residence. At the other end, there was a furious Indira Gandhi. “Everyone knew that you will lose. Even Geeta (Mukherjee’s wife’s pet name) knew it. But still you went ahead and created trouble for me,” she hung up without even allowing him to reply. 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.”

For a long time, the walls of Mukherjee’s office at his Talkatora Road bungalow flaunted only two framed photographs; both of Indira Gandhi. But for the last decade, a rare colour photograph of Sonia Gandhi, with him standing next to her, also found its place.

Mukherjee has tremendous admiration for Indira’s daughter-in-law especially for keeping national interest above anything else and apt party management. It’s now an oft-repeated story in the corridors of power that Mukherjee’s return to the finance ministry in 2009 was primarily because Gandhi wanted him there while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was initially toying with the idea of having someone like Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

A budget was to be presented within a month and Mukherjee wasted no time in meeting the Congress president for guidance. When he asked what all she wants to see in the budget, Gandhi reportedly told the finance minister, “more than economic jargon, I know one thing: I am for the poor people of our country. Do something for them.” Mukherjee’s budget saw huge rise in expenses in the social sector schemes.

A meeting of the Congress brass called after the 2002 assembly election of Jammu & Kashmir perhaps marked a new level of trust between Gandhi and Mukherjee. In the meeting, all other leaders except Mukherjee and Arjun Singh reportedly favoured that Congress should take the chief minister’s seat first in the coalition government with the PDP. Mukherjee strongly argued why the local party should be given the CM post first in the rotation. Towards the end of the meeting, Gandhi took a final opinion of all leaders and told Mukherjee, “You are miserably defeated.”

Mukherjee replied, “I know I am defeated. But I also know, I am right.”

Three days later, Sonia Gandhi called PDP’s Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba and asked them to take the chief minister’s post.

When there was a need to drop Adarsh-tainted Ashok Chavan as Maharashtra CM in 2010, Gandhi sent Mukherjee along with AK Antony (the party in-charge for Maharashtra). The two leaders returned to the capital from Mumbai around 3 am. Within a few minutes, Mukherjee’s cellphone rang and to their utter disbelief, it was Sonia Gandhi on the line. “How can I go to sleep when you two are still awake and working?” Gandhi quipped and asked them to come over to 10 Janpath for a meeting.

In his entire life, Mukherjee has seen two movies so far. The last one was Aamir Khan’s Rang De Basanti. As then defence minister, the censor board wanted his approval. “I took the three service chiefs to the theatre and told Sharmila (Tagore, then censor board chief), you are outsourcing your job to me,” he told HT. There are several jokes about his thick Bengali-accented English. A famous one is that he once said in context of disproportionate assets cases against the AIADMK chief: “Joylolitha cannot be shaved (Jayalalitha cannot to be saved).”

But the short man never felt ashamed about these shortcomings. In fact, he once told one of his US-educated cabinet colleague, “I studied at my village school and then at a local college. I didn’t receive foreign education like you. But yes, I know what is the real India which perhaps you don’t know.”

The village boy had to walk 5 km to reach the school that even included swimming in the overflowing river during the monsoon. Come July 25, that journey that started from the hamlet called Kirnahar could well take Pranab Mukherjee (or Poltu for his parents and siblings) to the Raisina Hill, making his dream a reality.