By Vijay Darda | 22-07-2012
As ‘Dada’ Pranab Kumar Mukherjee is all set to walk into the Rashtrapati Bhawan and brings his 43-year-long political career to a logical conclusion, I have a deep sense of personal privilege and happiness. After all the ups and downs that are an integral part of any political career and indeed life itself, he has reached the topmost elective post in the biggest democracy of the world.
The world is quite familiar with Pranabda, the multi-talented political personality. He has been described variously — the number one strategist of the UPA, its ace trouble-shooter and the one-man think tank of the Congress bestowed with encyclopaedic institutional memory. He has been a minister in the Central government and has handled virtually all the top portfolios — finance, defence, home, external affairs and commerce. As a skilled parliamentarian, who brought statesmanlike insights into any debate in which he participated, he was even appreciated by the Opposition. Yes, the prime minister’s post eluded him. But he would often quip: “I am PM — Pranab Mukherjee”.
But beyond this public persona, Dada as I have had the privilege of reverentially and affectionately addressing him for all the decades that it has been a personal privilege for me to have his overarching patronage, is an intensely warm person, a deeply pious and religious man who is above all a nationalist and a patriot.
As I go down the memory lane, I recall an unforgettable incident that took place at the famous Tirupati temple. All of us know that because of the incessant flow of devotees, you hardly get a few precious moments in the sanctum sanctorum to offer your prayers. But then such is Dada’s mesmerising quality that we spent more than an hour in this sacred place. There were three of us – Dada, Subbirami Reddy and myself. Once we sat there, it began with Subbirami who virtually lapsed into a trance.
Dada too was engrossed in meditative praying. But he was worried about Subbi, and to make sure that everything was alright, he even checked his breathing. Once assured that it was all well, we saw that Dada even surpassed the learned priests in the rendering of the Sanskrit shlokas. Such was the quality of his learning. I am aware that he is a devout Hindu who religiously performs his daily puja. We all know that he takes the puja break and goes to his ancestral village Kirnahar in the Birbhum district of West Bengal during the annual Durga puja. I have known him as a deeply religious person.
People also know about Dada’s flashes of temper. ‘You stupid’ is perhaps is a pet expression. But then he also cools down in an instant, and forgets that moment. However, you ask him for advice on any subject and he does not react in a haste. On the contrary, he takes his own time, and then comes up with a very balanced formulation.
Our polity is sharply fractured, and we politicians do not miss any opportunity to run down our rivals. But Dada, the nationalist, is of a different mettle altogether. For him national interest comes above anything else. Once during the days of the NDA regime, the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was intervening during the course of a debate in the Rajya Sabha. Dada was on the opposition benches in those days. Realising that the prime minister was making some factually incorrect statements, any other opposition member would have either raised a ruckus or intervened in the debate to challenge the prime minister.
But Dada walked over from his seat, and convinced Atalji that something was wrong and had to be corrected. His advice was immediately accepted. But then the Congress MPs raised a ruckus within the party and the matter went up to Sonia Gandhi who was then the leader of the parliamentary party. The irritated Congress MPs wanted that action should be taken against Dada for having missed an opportunity to embarrass the prime minister. But Dada has his own unbeatable logic. “When the prime minister of the country is speaking in the national Parliament, then it is a matter of national prestige. We cannot allow any incorrect statement to be made on the floor of the Parliament,” he explained. Not surprisingly, Sonia Gandhi also agreed with Dada’s logic. I am sure this is what separates mere party leaders from national leaders.
It is this confidence and national spirit that puts Dada in an altogether different league. In my personal conversations with senior BJP leaders like L K Advani, and even some like the BJP’s national president Nitin Gadkari who has a relatively short experience at the national level, I have always found them generously appreciating Dada’s qualities.
We all know that Dada was hand-picked by Indiraji way back in 1969, when he first came to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal. He had a tremendous working relationship with her and was her finance minister in 1982 as well as the treasurer when the party split after the defeat in the post emergency 1977 elections. In his room there hangs a picture of Dada putting a hand on mike, while Indiraji is speaking at an AICC session. When out of curiosity I asked him about this incident, he said: “She was delivering her presidential address, and there was some error, so I had to do this.” But Indiraji also appreciated this gesture. I have been very frankly discussing all issues with him. Even the supposedly ticklish matter of his relationship with the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. “You see, there is nothing personal about such things. It all depends on the manner in which you treat each other. In this respect his conduct has been impeccable,” he said. This came in the backdrop of the fact that in the 80s, Dada was the finance minister and the present PM worked under him, and now the hierarchy has reversed once again between them.
My father, the late Mr Jawaharlal Darda, shared an excellent personal relationship with Dada. They came close particularly during the Janata days of post-1977 when the Congress split and the faction led by Indiraji fought back to regain power. Those were the days when stalwarts like N K P Salve, Vasant Sathe, Dada and Babuji worked in close cooperation. Dada always looked back at those days very fondly. “I got more from your father than I could give,” he often told me.
Dada has retained this warmth of his relationship with Babuji and both Lokmat and myself have been its beneficiaries. It is a coincidence that on the day I am writing this, my revered mother has breathed her last. As Union finance minister Dada had come to Nagpur to deliver a lecture as a part of the Lokmat knowledge Series. After the lecture was over, naturally he was in a bit of a rush. But when I requested him to come home, he could not say ‘no’. When he came home and met my mother, then everything went on at leisurely pace. She fondly prepared a meal for him, and he too enjoyed it heartily. There was yet another instance when he admitted that he could not say ‘no’ to me. When I invited him for the release of Lokmat group’s coffee table book “Icons of Pune”, initially he appeared a touch reluctant, but then graced the occasion.
Dada has a diminutive figure. But then he packs a lot of power in his persona. As a nation, India is now poised to play a global role that is at once commensurate with our civilizational history, intrinsic cultural strength, the size and the power of our demographic diversity, as well as our economic and military muscle. As the president of India, Dada brings to the fore the political experience, the administrative skills and the articulation of a strategist to leverage our composite global advantage. Now when foreign dignitaries will come calling at the Rashtrapati Bhawan or when Dada will travel to foreign shores, these will be more than just ceremonial engagements.
Likewise, one of the major responsibilities of the president as enshrined in the Constitution is to safeguard the working of the Constitution. In opting for Dada as the next president, I am sure that the Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the senior UPA leaders have factored in the need to have a steady political hand at the Rashtrapti Bhawan who would be able to provide the right kind of guidance to navigate through the turbulent times that are promised by this era of coalition politics. The wide support that he got cutting across the political lines, and even the last minute switch by the mercurial Mamata Banerjee in his favour are all a testimony to the faith that is reposed in Dada’s ability to steer the nation through difficult times.
But, on his part, Dada is full of confidence in the youth of the nation. When I asked him for his assessment of Rahul Gandhi, Dada observed, “He is mature, and has the potential to lead the country.” From the Rashtrapati Bhawan, we can also expect his matured guidance in the form of books that he has been planning to write for sometime. He is a workaholic, and is known to be engaged in disposing files past midnight, into the wee hours of the day. As this task would not occupy him anymore, we should hope that some creative energies would be harnessed. It is also well-known that he is a diarist. On this he has already decided that these would be published only posthumously, and perhaps he would try to make up for the tragic loss of those portions that got washed away in the late 80s when rainwater flooded his flat in South Delhi. But that would have to wait, and now a new leaf is turned, and this is a new beginning in the Rashtrapati.