It Could Happen to You
What former President and politician par excellence Pranab Mukherjee can teach us
Anecdotes from the third volume of his memoirs – The Coalition Years: 1996-2012 – is the cover story of India Today magazine’s latest issue.
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Pranab Mukherjee has just published the third volume of his memoirs (The Coalition Years, 1996-2012) chronicling his long and extraordinary political life. He has given an exclusive interview to India Today Editorial Director, Raj Chengappa, and excerpts from his book. He is the cover story of India Today magazine this week.
Counted in years, experience and wisdom here’s a man who has been in public life for 51 years — 37 years as a parliamentarian, 22 years and nine months as a Union minister under four prime ministers and five years as the President of India. As Chengappa writes, “The drumbeats of history and destiny were never too far for Pranab Mukherjee.”
Reading the essay, the interview, and the excerpts, one is struck, not just by his candour and wry humour, but all the incredible stories — of people, places, moments and events — his life has been dotted with. So what is it that one can learn from a life richly lived?
As Chengappa writes, early in his life, Mukherjee “picked up his father’s habit of diligently penning the day’s events and meetings in a diary”. That, possibly, explains his legendary memory. It must have helped him to stay clear-headed.
It’s a habit former US President Barack Obama also has. As he told Time magazine once, “writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are”.
Praise the other side
“Mukherjee the writer is circumspect in his observations, kind to a fault and always respectful of colleagues,” writes Chengappa. “He is generous in praise of protagonists, many of whom were his rivals.” To Mukherjee, Sonia Gandhi “has the quality of a captain”; “Manmohan was the best choice (as PM candidate)… a man of highest integrity”; his “differences” with P Chidambaram “were exaggerated”… well, the point is clear.
Talk, discuss, engage
It’s the lack of “flexibility” to listen to and accept other voices that led to the downfall of UPA-II, he believes. The UPA coalition lost Mamata Banerjee in 2012, with her 19 valuable Lok Sabha members, in 2012, once Mukherjee became the President of India. “It was very difficult to handle her, no doubt,” he writes, “nonetheless I could keep her in the coalition.”
Not just within the party or government, even in foreign affairs — be it with Pakistan or China, Bangladesh or the US — incessant dialogue is what Mukherjee believed in and practiced in his capacity as foreign and defence minister.
Work on relationships
Arguably, his biggest strength. That’s why, in 2002, when the UPA was short of one lakh votes to nominate a president of its choice, his name came up. (“The primary concern to Sonia Gandhi was who was acceptable to other political parties to bring in these additional one lakh votes.”)
Mukherjee got support from Nitish Kumar, from the BSP as well as the Samajwadi Party and also Mamata Banerjee. Neither Manmohan Singh nor Dr Hamid Ansari, the two other possible contenders for the post, had that sort of a clout.
Be a team person
“Throughout my life, I have acted as per the advice of the leadership,” writes Mukherjee. That’s what he told Sonia Gandhi on the eve of June 2, 2012, when she asked him to agree to his nomination as the President of India.
That’s why he writes, he was not disappointed when Sonia overlooked him and made Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister in 2004. He was aware of, what he calls, his “disqualifications” — that the largest chunk of his career was spent in Rajya Sabha; that Hindi was not his natural language; and that he had not been able to establish Congress rule in his state, West Bengal.