Pranab Mukherjee, who laid down office as India's 13th president July 25, will be remembered as a "copybook president" who, despite coming from a different ideological and political background, never clashed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, if there were any differences, never allowed them to become public.
By Tarun Basu
Pranab Mukherjee, who laid down office as India's 13th president July 25, will be remembered as a "copybook president" who, despite coming from a different ideological and political background, never clashed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, if there were any differences, never allowed them to become public. In fact, Modi, at an event in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential mansion, spoke fulsomely about how Mukherjee guided him, an outsider, through the thicket of Delhi politics.
"I was new to the world of Delhi; the atmosphere was new to me. On many subjects, the President, like a guardian, a mentor, held my finger and guided me, Modi said, becoming emotional at a farewell dinner for the outgoing president. Mukherjee has been described as the perennial prime minister-in-waiting when he was part of the Congress party administration for over three decades. He was finance minister, defence minister and external affairs minister, but never became the head of government, though he mentored prime ministers like P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. He did both trouble-shooting and problem-solving for both the Congress party and governments of which he was part, before opting out of active politics when he realised he could never become PM.
"In last five years, my principal responsibility was to function as the guardian of the Constitution....I strived to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution, not just in word but also in spirit," Mukherjee said days before he demitted office. Mukherjee made state visits to 21 countries during his five-year tenure, notable among them being China, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. In fact, his visit to Israel in October 2015, the first by an Indian head of state, paved the way for the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel in July this year.
Mukherjee, because of his long experience in handling foreign affairs, was quite at ease in discussing bilateral and international affairs with global visitors. He did not need many briefing notes and often gave his foreign interlocutors a broad sweep of the country's history, civilisational perspective and world view. He is known to have a photographic memory for facts and events and often surprised visitors, both Indian and foreign, by giving precise dates, names and details of events and situations that happened decades ago.
Many have speculated that Mukherjee might again go back to being the elder statesman of a Congress party that now appears rudderless and idealess.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, an outspoken Congress MP, wrote wistfully in a signed web article how he wished that Mukherjee, "freed of his constitutional constraints...could well become the Congress party’s principal counsellor and help guide it back from its present nadir closer to the zenith." Describing him as a "statesman of prime ministerial stature", Aiyar said that once he became President, he detached himself from any hint of partisan politics and "did not depart an iota from his constitutionally decreed role even when it must have been an enormous strain to preside over a nation being led astray from its fundamental values and civilisational attributes."
Mukherjee, in his final address, addressed some of these concerns and frequent eruptions of mob violence when he spoke of the need to resurrect the "power of non-violence" to build a compassionate and caring society and to remember that the "soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance." He said "multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special" and if there is any move to deny that "a fundamental character of our thought process will wither away."
Mukherjee's daughter Sharmistha, a local Congress party leader, scotched speculation of her father rejoining active politics and said he will be available for advice to any party in a non-partisan manner.
Mukherjee - or Pranabda as he was not known to his peers and Pranabbabu to others, especially the 'bhadralok' variety - will, at 81, still have a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share around, only if politicians and common people care to tap him. And this time he wouldnt be burdened by the protocol and demands of the highest office of the country. Hopefully, the Congress will overcome its hubris to take his sage advice to give the necessary direction and motivation to the party if it wants remain in political contention in the coming years in the face of a Modi-led BJP juggernaut.
(Tarun Basu can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)