I had the privilege of knowing both George Fernandes and Mulayam Singh Yadav, as Defence Ministers; George because of his impatience with dilatory finance officials and Mulayam because he needed a window in Hindi between Kalam and him for official business. But memories that I have with Dr. Pranab Mukherjee are incandescent. As the signed off yesterday as the President, he spoke of the need not misuse “ordnance” as a subterfuge for skirting Parliamentary debate and legislation. He was very meticulous with the files as he was with the Constitution.
There are three anecdotes I would like to recount viz. his innate courtesy, his astute politics and fawning admiration for Mrs. Indira Gandhi. In 2005 he was to unveil the Defence Procurement Manual before a large galaxy of journalists. This was the first systematic codification of rules and procedures to make defence procurement transparent to all, and to blunt the criticism of sleaze that shrouded public imagination. I was the Chairperson for this Manual. He was in the stage with all the top defence officials, when he beckoned me to come up the stage and whispered: I will answer the essentials; you handle the detail. With Pranab, one need not have to chip in. His disarming courtesy for a middle level officer will stay, forever; in what Freud would call, the subconscious corner of my memory.
The other anecdote I recall was when he received a letter from Sri Laloo Prasad Yadav, requesting the Defence Ministry to lay railway lines in certain areas of Bihar. The Army Chief was called and he was vehement in his opposition. The Defence Secretary, as any careful bureaucrat, was contrite. Suddenly he used his RAX and spoke to the PM. He breathed a sigh of relief: “Thank God, Lallu has not spoken to the PM”. He looked towards me and asked what next? I said, “Sir we will refer the proposal to the Planning Commission for a Cost Benefit Analysis”. He broke into a hysteric laughter and just said “That’s like a finance guy”!
The last memory that I have of him is when we were stranded in Lebong airstrip (2006), because of an inclement weather, after returning from the Golden Jubilee Celebration of for Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. He was expansive in his mood and sipping tea served by a waiter for the nearby detachment. He said: I was once stranded along with Mrs. Gandhi in 1973 like this. Sanjay was with her and was playing pranks with the jawans. Mrs. Gandhi was constantly trying to dissuade Sanjay for being naughty. Pranab told her “Madam, let him play; this is his age to have fun”. When I reminded Dr. Mukherjee of the major pranks that Sanjay played with people’s personal lives during emergency; he got into a reflective mood. And said; once Mrs. Gandhi told me that after she lost the election after the emergency Pranab, almost everyone has now deserted me”. But Mrs. Gandhi was his hero!
Just as Kalam was a people’s President, Dr. Pranab Mukherjee was every “MP’s preferred Prime Minister”; who did not become one. He endeared himself to the entire opposition. He was always impeccably dressed like a Bengali Bhadrelok and had a short fuze. But most definitively he was a role model for mandarins like me, who got the benefit of his affection, penchant for details and recounting of an occasional antidote. William Wordsworth wrote: “Bliss was that dawn to be born. But to be young is sheer heaven”.
It was indeed a real bliss for me to be part of his benign indulgence in South Block during (2004-06) when I also partaken the sandesh he used to carry on our flight together in Embraer aircraft abroad! Dr. Mukherjee has written two eminent readable autobiographies so far. As an astute observer of the political drama over a period of five decades, his memories “My Years with Modi” would indeed be a connoisseur’s delight!
The author teaches Constitutional law