The last time this columnist met Pranab Mukherjee was during the Vajpayee era, at the residence of one of the most gracious hostesses in Delhi, Najma Heptulla. At that time, he was relaxed and cheerful, plainly expecting his then life of ease to continue into the indefinite future. That was not to be. Unexpectedly, and largely as a consequence of lucky choices in its coalition partners, his Congress party returned to power in 2004, defeating the BJP yet again in 2009. Being the individual with the least aptitude — or interest — in politics, it was natural that Sonia Gandhi chose the gentle Manmohan Singh to be the steward of the government, settling down for a spell of running policy from behind the veil. The two Cabinet colleagues of Manmohan Singh who had the most experience in politicking were A.K. Antony and Pranab Mukherjee, and it was no surprise when the UPA chairperson began using them frequently as fire fighters. Perhaps it would have done the Congress more good were Pranab Mukherjee to have been relieved of his governmental chores and anointed the Congress President. After all, since Indira Gandhi re-fashioned the Congress in her image during 1969-78, there has never been any doubt that no matter what her title (or absence of it), it would be Sonia Gandhi who would control the direction in which the Congress would move. Had she opted to rule through the immense moral force which her family commands within the Congress, Sonia Gandhi's reputation for sacrifice may have been further enhanced. However, Pranab remained within the Union Cabinet rather than preside over the AICC.
As for his colleagues, no Prime Minister — least of all Manmohan Singh, who had a ringside view of events during 1992-96 — would have dared to repeat what Narasimha Rao attempted, which is to bring the Congress back into the atmosphere in the early 1950s, when leaders such as Sardar Patel, G.B. Pant and Rajendra Prasad fancied themselves to be Nehru's equal and were not hesitant to act as though they indeed were. Rao's attempt to box Sonia into the "Equals" corner failed, with Arjun Singh, Sheila Dikshit and N.D. Tiwari cutting him to size within the Congress vote bank, to the benefit of the BJP, which finally came to power in 1998 and rode on the Kargil wave to a convincing victory in 1999. Kargil was in fact a disaster made possible by the neglect of defences against the generals in Islamabad that began during the period when Morarji Desai was Prime Minister (to whom Indira Gandhi was much more toxic than an emollient Ziaul-Haq) and accelerated when Inder Kumar Gujral became Prime Minister and sought to render the 1947 border a nullity through unilateral concessions that were each followed by demands for more, rather than anything given back in exchange. Patriotic fervour masked the incompetence of the military, which allowed Indian posts to be taken over by stealth by Musharraf's men, and in the resulting atmosphere of jingoism, the Vajpayee government's neglect of border security was washed away in a medley of images of this country's superb troops taking back defile after defile, peak after peak and its air force pounding away at Pakistani positions despite the severe limitations on its operations placed by a South Block eager to pacify Bill Clinton.
As a minister, Pranab Mukherjee was less impressive than he was as a troubleshooter for the AICC president. However, there were moments of glory, such as his standing firm that Vodafone ought to pay the exchequer the Rs 10,000 crore in taxes that was somehow not collected when Hutchison Whampoa sold of its stake to the UK company. Chief Justice Kapadia later on brought back the smile to executives in London by his decision that the then Finance Minister's order to the company to pay up was illegal. However, hopefully the last will not have been heard on this matter, in an era when the Obama administration is collecting billions of dollars in fines from banks doing the same sort of operations out of India without even a raised eyebrow within the RBI or the Finance Ministry. How he would have been as PM is a matter of conjecture. What is fact is that he and his family have brought a glow to the office of the President of India. Despite being the spouse of a serial VVIP, Pranab's better half retains the naturalness of the non-VVIP, as do his children, despite one of them being far less deferential at the altar of political correctness. This is no Royal House occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan but People Like Us. The less "Presidential" he looks and acts (and with a family such as his, this seems likely), the more will Pranab Mukherjee make those of us who have spent a lifetime outside the portals of power relate to him with fondness.