New Delhi: During his more than four decades of public service, Pranab Mukherjee, 76, elected Sunday as India’s 13th president, was the government’s principal trouble-shooter during its most tumultuous days as he commanded tremendous respect across the political spectrum.
That eventually tilted the balance in his being named the ruling UPA’s nominee for the country’s top constitutional job as the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the imposing British-built, 340-room presidential mansion perched atop Raisina Hill.
His Congress colleagues whisper he is a Chanakya, ancient India’s fabled political conniver, but he is largely well liked for his knowledge and sagacity.
He is down to earth, lives modestly, and has admitted many a time that he cannot speak polished English. For one who is supremely self-confident, he can be humble.
But he has a temper – and has more than once apologised to MPs for raising his voice inside and outside parliament.
Once a pipe smoker, Mukherjee has now quit smoking. Today he tells people to kick the habit.
He is not a movie buff but his soft corner for the silver screen was evident when, in the budget he presented in May, he exempted films from service tax, saying they contributed immensely to national unity.
“I used to see some movies earlier. But recently I didn’t have the luxury of having any time… except for one movie, watching which was, I think, a part of my job. It was on air force…’Rang De Basanti’,” he had famously said about the 2006 Aamir Khan-starrer that was predicated on the defence minister being shot for a supposed wrong.
He devours books, works well past midnight, and has said in a rare peek into his personal life that he was hardly able to find time for his family. His only interaction was often limited to giving his wife a goodnight peck before retiring to bed well past the usual bedtime.
He is known never to have taken a holiday, except for his annual spiritual jaunt when he has a rendezvous with his favourite deity, Goddess Durga, at his ancestral home in Miriti village in Birbhum district, about 200 km from Kolkata.
Adorning the pattabastra (robe) of a priest, Mukherjee religiously performs the rites, reads from the ‘Sree Sree Chandi’ sacred text, and fasts during the three days of Durga Puja.
His sharp memory, quick wit and persuasive skills are widely respected. In what can be called a tribute, BJP leader L.K. Advani once remarked that the Congress-led government would not last a day but for Mukherjee.
Consider this: He was the man the Congress – both UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – turned to every time there was a crisis. Each time, Mukherjee rose to the occasion. Even if he did not always succeed, he left a mark, in parliamentary debates or otherwise.
His position in the party was indisputable – until June 15, when the United Progressive Alliance named him its candidate for president. He had headed 83 of the 183 ministerial decision-making groups, known as Group of Ministers.
Mukherjee has served as foreign, defence and finance ministers.
He has, over a period of 25 years, presided over cabinet meetings when the prime minister has been away. But the top post in the government has eluded him because of what some feel is the Gandhi family’s wariness.
This goes back to the time after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 when Mukherjee, a stickler for rules, is supposed to have pointed out to her son Rajiv Gandhi that convention demanded that the second in command be the caretaker prime minister till the Congress elected a new leader.
That was interpreted as a sign of his vaulting ambition. Mukherjee has remained out of contention for the prime minister’s job ever since.
A persuasive orator and a formidable negotiator, Pranabda – as the Bengali ‘bhadralok’ is adoringly addressed – came to acquire in his five decades of parliamentary politics traits that have earned him the admiration of even his political foes.
He is considered a walking encyclopaedia on virtually everything related to politics and governance – all due to his photographic memory of the fine print and negotiation details – that makes it difficult for any bureaucrat to hoodwink or trip him.
He was born into a middle-class family in Birbhum district of West Bengal in December 1935. His father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, was a Congress politician. Politics came naturally to the young man.
After degrees in history, political science and law, Mukherjee gave up his two initial loves – teaching and journalism – to take to politics.
His parliamentary career began in 1969 when his home state West Bengal was in ferment, with Naxalites (Maoists) on the rampage. He was repeatedly nominated to the Rajya Sabha until 2004 when he entered the Lok Sabha.
From the time he first became minister of state for revenue and banking under Indira Gandhi in 1973, Mukherjee has held a variety of portfolios in successive governments. He first headed the finance ministry in 1982.
A devoted family man, Mukherjee is married to Surva, a Rabindra Sangeet singer of repute. The couple have a son and a daughter. Daughter Sharmistha is a kathak dancer. Son Abhijit, following his father’s footsteps, is a member of the West Bengal assembly.