He relished power, keeping it under wraps with expert astuteness.
Broadly speaking, Indian politicians avoid intimacy. The late Pranab Mukherjee was no exception. I knew him well for over 40 years. I claim no intimacy.
In 2004, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar, was shot dead by a marksman of the LTTE as he was drying himself after a swim. The swimming bath was located in the compound of his house in Colombo. I had known him well for several years.
As External Affairs Minister, I represented India at his state funeral. The late Pranab Mukherjee, then Defence Minister, was also asked to do so. I was a bit surprised but gave him all the respect I could.
Many years later he told me that he was asked at the last minute to join me. “The consideration with which you treated me I cannot forget. It showed character. After all, I was an intruder.”
He was the only politician to become Finance Minister, Defence Minister and External Affairs Minister. He was efficient, exceptionally competent and a forceful minister. He was the best Parliamentarian of his time. Although he had a short fuse, he learnt to suffer fools because they are always in a majority. His fertility of political strategy and tactics was inexhaustible.
In Cabinet meetings, in the Cabinet Committee of Security he was most impressive, excelling in reconciling disparate views. In the all-important Cabinet Committee on Security, presided over by the Prime Minister, the other three members, Shivraj Patil, P. Chidambaram and I were no pushovers, but Pranab Mukherjee was in a higher league.
He relished power, keeping it under wraps with expert astuteness. To cross his path was folly. He never came to a meeting unprepared. His memory was elephantine. He was seldom without a book.
In spite of his rare political abilities he got scorched at the centenary meeting of the AICC in Bombay in 1985. Rajiv Gandhi was constantly being reminded by his inexperienced, youthful advisers that after Indiraji’s assassination Pranabji as the senior most minister had it, not so discreetly known that he should succeed Indiraji. Whether this was true or not, it stuck. He was expelled from the Congress. Then he erred even more. He floated his own party. It got nowhere. By 1989 Rajiv Gandhi realised that Pranabji was so great an asset to the party that he called him back. Thereafter, Pranab Mukherjee did not look back. In 1991, he joined P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet.
In 2004, Pranab Mukherjee should have, purely on merit and seniority, become Prime Minister. Instead, the Congress president appointed Manmohan Singh. One would have expected Pranabji to resign. Manmohan Singh had been his subordinate for a number of years. The remarkable manner in which the two adjusted to this most unusual situation does immense credit to both. Manmohan is by temperament a non-ego individual. Pranabji was a non-pretentious person. He conducted himself with supreme maturity and not once did he rock the boat between 2004 and 2014. Collisions were avoided. He never attempted to upstage the Prime Minister. The two had a commitment to truthfulness and decency. Manmohan Singh always treated his former boss with respect, even reverence.
Shri Pranab Mukerjee’s three-volume autobiography is disappointing. He was not a natural writer. I drew his attention to what Arthur Koestler wrote in his autobiography, “The virtue of understatement and self-restraint make social intercourse civilized and agreeable, but they have a paralysing effect on autobiography.”
I frankly told him that he revealed almost nothing and concealed the ups and downs of his career and life. “You have, for decades been in the midst of momentous events in the political arena. It is your duty to share your unrivalled experiences. You made policy. You made sure that it was implemented without prevarication. Your interventions in the meetings of the Congress Working Committee made all of us sit up. Of how many others can this be said?”
The disarming and uncharismatic former Rashtrapati pronounced, “Many truths I cannot tell. These will be cremated with me.”