Pranab Mukherjee – or Pranab-da, as many of us fondly called him — was a man who made the long journey as a small boy from Mirati, a village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, to Rashtrapati Bhavan, without ever losing his sense of equanimity and humility.
Even as a doughty fighter of the Congress party, he earned respect across the political spectrum for his affable ways. It made him a natural arbiter of issues, a role he played very effectively as president.
His contributions to the nation were immense. He had the vision to understand that India needed to shed its non-aligned policy after the Cold War. As defence minister, he realised that Russia alone could not meet India’s defence needs and clinched the India-US defence partnership. As external affairs minister, Mukherjee took India’s relations with the US to a different level, successfully getting Washington to de-hyphenate its policies towards India and Pakistan. He was at the forefront of the signing of the India-US nuclear deal.
Earlier as finance minister, he had taken steps to pave the way for liberalisation as far back as in the 1980s. He launched ‘Operation Forward’ under Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership and introduced tax reforms. Later. he laid the foundation for India’s signature economic reform proposals, the goods and services tax (GST), and the Direct Taxes Code (DTC).
Mukherjee will also remembered for being a diehard constitutionalist. He invariably carried at least two copies of the Constitution in his briefcase, asserting that the president alone among those taking public office took the oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law’. It mattered little to him if it affected the ruling party or the Opposition. He refused to approve the ordinance in 2013 for amending the Representation of People Act, 1951, to protect convicted legislators. He also put the government on notice when an ordinance was repeatedly sent to him, instead of it first being placed in Parliament.
Mukherjee was equally displeased with attempts made by governors to intervene in the functioning of legislatures. On one occasion, he summoned the concerned ministers, after which a governor from a North-Eastern state had to vacate his position.
Mukherjee earned the respect of many foreign leaders. His strong faith in democracy, pluralistic values, secularism and shunning of divisive politics made even ‘outsiders’ share their views on very sensitive issues. When he visited Bangladesh in 2013, he received a rousing welcome as the country’s ‘son-in-law’ – his wife Suvra was born and spent her early childhood in that country. Returning from the family temple, Pranab-da had turned to me and said, ‘We are now married in their eyes,’ even though the couple had been married for almost 56 years then.
Those who knew him marvelled at his phenomenal memory, for which he credits his mother. He was a mischievous boy and often bunked school. To get him to attend classes and study, his mother insisted that he would get his meal only after he recalled all that he had learned in class that particular day and what he did each hour of the day. Recalling these each day, according to Mukherjee, developed this memory.
As President Mukherjee, he transformed his ceremonial office into a beehive of activities. As an amateur historian, he published a series on the various aspects of the Indian presidency. Mukherjee transformed the President’s Estate into a model township and, as the people’s president, threw open its doors to visitors and established a museum. He encouraged art and culture by starting an artists-in-residence program.
In his death on August 31, India has lost a people’s leader, a man who gave national and social concerns primacy over political and partisan interests — leaving many to wonder what he may have accomplished had he become prime minister.