With the death of Pranab Mukherjee, Pranabda as we all addressed him, India and Indian politics are left with a void. He served the Indian Parliament and many Indian governments in leading positions during his five-decade-long political life.
He entered the Rajya Sabha when I was still in school. Despite his seniority he never treated people like me in a condescending manner. As far as I am concerned, he had always treated me as an equal, never expressing any acrimony over our differences.
Right from the 1970s there were occasions when I had to confront Pranabda, as Indira Gandhi’s trusted Cabinet colleague, during Emergency.
Differences continued all through my association with him for nearly four decades. Though not in Parliament, in various political delegations I had to confront him as the commerce minister negotiating the formation of the WTO and drawing India into supporting the Dunkel Draft. We were protesting on the streets of Delhi while Pranabda was presiding over India’s role in WTO formation.
However, it was during the period of the Vajpayee government and the efforts for uniting the secular opposition parties to defeat that government in 2004 general elections that I had the opportunity to interact with him closely. During these discussions, particularly concerning the simultaneous assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh over seat adjustments, Pranabda was leading the Congress delegation. During the course of one of these often contentious discussions he suddenly took me aside to ask my opinion on whether he should contest the Lok Sabha election. He had never entered the Lok Sabha as an elected MP till then. I recollect telling him that I am too junior to give someone like him any advice and refused. He however insisted. I had told him that he should contest only if he was more than confident of victory. In those crucial elections when we were working for the defeat of the BJP, Pranabda losing would send a very wrong signal. Eventually, he contested and won from Jangipur and then emerged as the main pointsman of the United Progressive Alliance and the coalition government that was formed. He was indispensable for the UPA government, serving on every committee with the coalition partners, particularly, UPA-Left coordination committee and the one formed over Left parties opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal.
He had always insisted that I should come to Parliament. When the party told me, I entered the Rajya Sabha in 2005 and felt very touched by the manner Pranabda received me, giving me valuable tips about something that I had very little knowledge i.e. parliamentary proceedings. All through those years till he was elected President of India we had been having almost daily interactions. These however had a large share of our disagreements, as well, that used to occur both inside the House and outside under the UPA-Left Coordination Committee meetings.
On one occasion, claiming success for insulating India from the 2008 global financial meltdown, Pranabda told the Rajya Sabha that the Indian banking and financial system was spared thanks to Indira Gandhi’s bank nationalisation. This was soon after the Left withdrew its support from the UPA in 2008 following the disagreements over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. I recollect me interrupting him and urging him to yield to allow me to make a point which he graciously did. Such parliamentary decorum and dignity has now become a thing of the past. I had then told the House that bank nationalisation was one of the conditions that the Left parties had then put before Indira Gandhi in return for their support to her presidential candidate V V Giri. In addition, the Left had also asked for coal nationalisation. Pranabda had the memory of an elephant. He recalled the details of the talks, of which I knew very little and went on to say that one more demand was there that was the abolition of privy purses. I was till then under the impression that this demand was raised by others whom Indira Gandhi had approached for support. Nonetheless, I recollect saying then that whenever the Congress party heeded the advice of the Left it not only helped its government but, importantly, benefited the country. However, unfortunately, this is not being followed with regard to the Indo-US nuclear deal. There was the usual merriment and interruptions in the proceedings but not for a minute did Pranabda lose his cool having to contend with a person very junior to him in politics. He maintained that decorum of treating everyone on an equal footing giving the highest priority to the culture of debate, discussion and decision in parliamentary proceedings.
The first official visit Pranabda undertook after becoming the President of India was to Bangladesh. He received a rousing welcome as the son-in-law of Bangladesh as his wife Surva migrated from this part of the undivided Bengal. I accompanied him on this State visit. His knowledge of Bengal, its culture, the partition, the agonies and tribulations was phenomenal. He was a person who was deeply engrossed in the culture and life of the Bengalis. Every year he used to return to his native village during the Puja, for both his religious beliefs and the culture associated with it.
All this was magnified, peppered with nostalgia, when we had visited Jorasanko, the ancestral home of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. He would regale us with many an anecdote and stories about Tagore’s life and work which I had never known before. He insisted that the Bangladesh officials take us to the houseboat parked on the river bank to the house which used to be Tagore’s recluse for his writings.
I can go on narrating many such personal experiences, but these shall be cherished for a future occasion.
Pranab da will be missed. My heartfelt condolences to his son Abhijit and daughter Sharmishta.