For 35 long years I was a trainee reporter for Pranab Mukherjee. I first met him in 1985 as a trainee journalist, primarily because he was close to the then Editor of Bartaman, Barun Sengupta. I grabbed the opening with both hands and the PM was always indulgent, giving me time and patiently explaining what was happening in the state and the country and why.
I remember asking him whether he ever aspired to become the chief minister of West Bengal. He was the President of the WBPCC and an important fundraiser for the party at the time. But he immediately replied that he knew he was not a mass leader and only mass leaders could become successful chief ministers. I sometimes wonder how many leaders realise this.
The best time to call on him was around midnight. I would often reach his house at 11.30 pm or so and wait for him to call me. Like many Bengalis he liked to have a siesta in the afternoon. He once told me that the practice was initiated by West Bengal’s first chief minister Dr B.C. Roy. “The entire Writers’ Building (the state secretariat) would go to sleep in the afternoon,” he had joked. But then he was a night bird and worked till late into the night. Till he became the President of India, he claimed to wake up at 4 am every morning.
In all these years I cannot remember a single instance when he engaged in loose talk. I never heard him abuse anyone. But over the years I learnt to distinguish from his voice people he was fond of, people he liked and those who he barely tolerated. It could be just the way he would address P.V. Narasimha Rao or R. Venkatraman. “So, PV what do you think?” or “RV, what is your opinion?” immediately preceding a call to N.D. Tiwari: “Tiwari Ji, what is your assessment?” I could make out whose opinion he valued.
If he ever got very angry with someone, he would say in Bengali that the man was a muskrat (Chuncho).
A voracious reader of Bengali fiction and non-fiction in English, he admired Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and Samaresh Majumdar. But I am not sure if he ever read Jhumpa Lahiri. He would read books in English on subjects close to his heart, mainly History.
In the Rashtrapati Bhavan he once pointed his finger to a blue book and said that no matter what he or others might think of their exalted position, it was this book that governed India. It was the Constitution and the President claimed that it was his habit to carry it everywhere. No wonder he had such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world’s longest Constitution.
As is also well known, for over 50 years he maintained a daily diary. He would use a fountain pen and blue ink. I once pleaded with him for a peek into his diaries. His eyes twinkled as he said, “I have given the custody of my diaries to Munni (his daughter Sharmistha) with the instruction that she could publish or do what she liked with them after my death”.
He was, to quote someone who knew him even longer, a terrible host. He would rarely invite people home. I like to think he was happy to see me at birthday parties and his wedding anniversaries. But he never invited me. The invitation would come from his wife, whom I called ‘Boudi’ (Bhabhi). Even on such occasions he would arrive home very late from office and greet people with the hint of a smile, a nod or, in my case, a terse, “you are also here”.
I remember a particular evening, possibly his wedding anniversary, when guests waited for him even as he remained closeted in his office over a meeting with a dignitary. Boudi, dressed for the occasion, waited on a swing for him to emerge for a photograph. Minutes passed and guests were getting restless. But nobody was willing to go into his office and ask him to come out. After a long wait, the choice fell on me because even if he lost his shirt, it was assumed, I would escape relatively unscathed.
On another occasion Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, who was on a visit to New Delhi, expressed her desire to call on Pranab Babu at home. He was the Finance Minister at the time and would have none of it. He called up Sheikh Hasina to warn her. It would not be appropriate for the Prime Minister to visit the home of the Finance Minister of India, he insisted. Protocol did not allow it, he argued.
Sheikh Hasina had the last word. “I will be calling on your wife. If you are so stuck up on protocol, don’t meet me,” she said and did turn up at his home. If memory serves me right, Pranab Babu remained in his office till late in the evening.
Leader of the opposition in the West Bengal Assembly Abdul Mannan might remember the ‘lunch’ at Yojana Bhavan to which a group of MLAs from West Bengal were invited by Pranab babu, who was the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. The delegation led by Somen Mitra arrived promptly at 1 pm and looked forward to a sumptuous lunch. “The Yojana Bhavan to us at the time was like Hyderabad House and we expected a royal spread,” recalled one of the MLAs later.
But Pranab Babu began to lecture them on GDP, savings and investment. The MLAs put up with it for more than an hour before one of them reminded Pranab Babu that they were hungry. To their chagrin they found the Deputy Chairman calling his attendant, Hira Lal, and
directing him to get ‘something’ for the guests to eat. The canteen could rustle up a few plates of cucumber sandwiches and Gulab Jamuns. By now the MLAs were livid and gulping down the sandwiches, they rushed out of the chamber fuming and drove to Gol Market to have their lunch. Pranab Babu claimed he had no recollection of the invitation he had extended!
Although a frugal eater, he liked homely, Bengali food. Wherever he travelled in India or abroad, there would invariably be a Bengali household or two that would arrange for his meals. In the United States I recall that his meals came from the house of Ronen Sen, who was India’s Ambassador to the US at the time. On foreign visits I would often see him survive on fruits and milk.
We were sitting in his suite at the New York Palace Hotel. He was India’s External Affairs Minister at the time and had just had a hectic day. I was keen to find out what was discussed in his meeting with the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But he was in a reflective mood and drew my attention to the New York skyline dotted with towering skyscrapers.
“Look at the power of this country, which is bossing over the world, he said. UK’s Prime Minister is referred to as the foreign minister of the United States,” he added with a chuckle. “But somehow, I have this feeling that this materialistic civilisation is not going to last for long. It is going to disintegrate.”
Bored and impatient, I persisted. “What happened in your meeting with Secretary Rice,” I asked. He gave me an amused look and shrugged. “She impressed upon me that there are good military rulers and there are bad military rulers and India should deal with good military rulers.” He wouldn’t say more but clearly my time was up.
He called Anil, his secretary and wanted to know what would be the time in New Delhi. It was 8 am in Delhi, he was told. “Connect me to the Advisor”, he said and he was connected to Omita Paul, his trusted aide. Peeved, I refused to move and he did not ask me to leave either. But over the next 15 minutes she apparently briefed him about all the news that had appeared in the newspapers in New Delhi, the information, statements and the comments that mattered. It was clearly a neat summary as Pranab Babu listened attentively, interjecting with a leading question or two. For me it was a valuable insight into the working relationship between the two, which had started when Omita Paul was an Information Officer attached to the finance ministry.
Everybody knows he adored Indira Gandhi and looked up to her as a mentor. I once asked if he was ‘Public Sector minded’, as one of my editors had put it, because of the late Prime Minister who had nationalized banks and coal mines and ended privy purse of princely states. He gave me a quizzical look and said teasingly, “I a Leftist? But don’t you journalists say I was responsible for the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani?”
Pranab Babu did not deny that he developed a personal relationship with Dhirubhai and the Ambani family. I was once present when he received a call from Kokilaben, mother of Mukesh and Anil Ambani, both of whom called Pranab Babu ‘uncle’. I have seen the two brothers calling on him. And I know that it was Anil Ambani who forced him to watch the film ‘Lincoln’ that Reliance Communication had produced. It was also Anil Ambani, I believe, who persuaded Mulayam Singh Yadav to step aside in favour of Pranab Mukherjee as UPA’s Presidential candidate.
He told me once that while the BJP made a song and dance about disinvestment, it was the Congress which had initiated disinvestment of sick PSUs. “But we did not call a press conference every time. Read my first budget speech as finance minster and you will see,” he said.
He was certainly one of a kind. Although he had spent 50 years in the national capital, he would never be seen in parties or five-star hotels, where powerful politicians of all parties gathered late in the evening to share a drink and plot their moves.
I visited him in the Rashtrapati Bhavan days before Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. We sat in his room and chatted. Outside men were at work, busy making arrangements, putting up a Shamiana to receive leaders of SAARC countries that Modi had invited for the swearing in.
Pranab Babu’s eyes twinkled as he quipped in Bengali, “he seems so much like BJP’s Mamata”. He added more seriously, “This is not how Foreign Policy is formulated.”
He rarely discussed politics or personalities with me. But I will be very surprised to learn that PM Modi had consulted Pranab Mukherjee before Demonetisation or rolling out the GST. The fact that he did not get a second term as President tells its own story.
What I do know is that after leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan, he was lonelier than ever. While BJP ministers did occasionally drop in, he once lamented that he missed meeting old colleagues and comrades. Should he have left the Congress, I asked him once.
“I did it once but I will never do it again,” he had replied, pointing out that even Sharad Pawar and VP Singh regretted leaving the Congress. “VP Singh in fact met Sonia Gandhi and apologised for the wild allegations over Bofors,” he had quipped.
He was not a great political organiser, having failed to strengthen the Congress in Bengal. He was not a mass leader. He lost all the elections he contested barring the last three, two for the Lok Sabha and one for President of India. And yet, during the last few days after his death, I have heard more people say India would miss Pranab Babu than Pranab Babu himself could have imagined.
I wish he knew. He would have been happy.
Jayanta Ghosal is a veteran political editor and commentator based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own