POLITICS

Paean To Pranab Babu — The Bengali 'Bhadralok' In Indian Politics

24/07/2017 2:11 PM IST | Updated 24/07/2017 4:35 PM IST
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PD:DM/November, 1984, 13/A22M The Minister of Finance Shri Pranab Mukherjee inaugurating the Central Purchases Advisory Council meeting, in New Delhi on November 12, 1984.

Let me lay my partisanship out in the open and admit this freely. As a Bengali I will miss Pranab Mukherjee as he leaves Rashtropoti Bhobon.

And what a Bengali he is. He likes his fish curry, especially parshe fish. He has a daaknaam or nickname, Poltu. He likes posto. He loves Rabindrasangeet. He keeps a diary. Satyajit Ray could not have scripted a Bengali babu better. I will miss Pranab-babu because even in Bengal they don't make them like him anymore. In Kolkata we are now in the age of Didi, a far more rambunctious and outspoken politician than the old bhadralok babus who scuttled around like Hobbits in dhotis.

And what a Bengali he is. He likes his fish curry, especially parshe fish. He has a daaknaam or nickname, Poltu. He likes posto.

Pranab Mukherjee, it should be remembered, was a Congress politician. But bhadralok-to-bhadralok he had excellent relations with the CPM's Jyoti Basu who helped him with that Rajya Sabha seat in 1993. And when his own presidential bid was in peril, with little sister Mamata Banerjee coming out against him, it's said Pranab Mukherjee picked up the phone and called who else but another fellow Bengali babu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. The Bengal Club of bhadralok Communists came through and coaxed the Politburo into supporting Mukherjee.

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PD:KR/May, 1983, 13/A63(11)HE Mr. I.V. Arkhipov First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Shri Pranab Mukherjee Minister of Finance Signing an Indo-Soviet agreement for Soviet credit of nearly 140 crore rupees for Vishakhapatman Steel project in New Delhi on May 12, 1983.

Pranab Mukherjee's final speech to Parliament does not just map out a long and fascinating public life but traces the remarkable story of the Great Survivor.

It's a trait we as upper middle class Bengalis have always been taught to revere and emulate. When his name was announced as the UPA candidate for president, Joy Bhattacharya tweeted: "Pranab babu has got the ideal job of any Bengali 'bhadralok'. Great title, huge house, lots of perks and no real power or responsibility."

But he's executed the job impeccably even as the administration has changed and laid down the ground rules for how to be a babu, win friends and influence people.

Be slow and steady.

Don't be the squeaky wheel.

Adapt and adjust.

Smile politely.

Adapt and adjust again.

Be indispensable.

Appear non-threatening.

Always be available.

Never be flamboyant.

Know all secrets but don't draw attention.

Develop a photographic memory.

Don't rock boats.

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PD:KR/May, 1983, 13/A63(11)HE Mr. I.V. Arkhipov First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Shri Pranab Mukherjee Minister of Finance Signing an Indo-Soviet agreement for Soviet credit of nearly 140 crore rupees for Vishakhapatman Steel project in New Delhi on May 12, 1983.

And how well it has served him. All the way from a Rajya Sabha seat in 1969 when Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon to the highest constitutional office in the land. He is said to have helped Dhirubhai Ambani with import duties on ingredients for polyester according to a book by Hamish McDonald but he has never been accused of anything untoward. In an age of ostentatious scams, he has been the soul of discretion.

He is said to have helped Dhirubhai Ambani with import duties on ingredients for polyester according to a book by Hamish McDonald but he has never been accused of anything untoward.

As he said when he released the second volume of his memoirs, "some secrets will be buried with me."

He never became Prime Minister, always a Prime Minister-in-waiting instead. But never mind, it's still a remarkable innings for a man who had little grassroots base of his own. Mukherjee rarely played his cards (or files) wrong. The only hiccup was a fit of Bengali abhimaan when the inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister after Indira Gandhi's assassination and then dropped Mukherjee from the cabinet, an act he said left him "shell-shocked and flabbergasted".

Pranab Mukherjee left the Congress in body but not in spirit. Years later he admitted, according to Rasheed Kidwai in his book 24, Akbar Road, that he had forgotten the name of his party. He could have been PM again later down the road but had to serve under Dr Manmohan Singh, a man whose boss he had once been. But like a true Bengali, he had been taught discretion is always the better part of valour. Like a good Bengali he knows that meals might begin with something bitter like shukto but there's always hope for something sweet at the end.

In the end Sonia Gandhi had to give him the lifetime achievement prize for service to the party. He became President Pranab Mukherjee.

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PD:KR/November, 1984, 13/A63(23)The Minister of Foreign Trade of DPR Korea Mr. Cheil Kong Gun calling on the Minister of Finance, Shri Pranab Mukherjee in New Delhi on November 19, 1984.

At that time he had wryly commented that there was "more support for his candidature as president outside his party than within."

This was the secret of being Pranab Mukherjee. In his farewell speech he had something for everybody. If he was fulsome in praise for his old boss Indira Gandhi, he was effusive in praise for Narendra Modi. Those who dislike Modi cheered Mukherjee for giving him a veiled warning that "self-correction" was better than "self justification", that a government's duty was towards "all its citizens", that lawmaking by ordnances is a failure by Parliament to "discharge its lawmaking role."

But those who love Modi would also find enough to be pleased about in the same speech. He singled out the GST as a "shining example of cooperative federalism" and thanked the prime minister for his "warm and courteous behaviour" and "passion and energy."

At a time when the prime ministerial candidate boasts about his 56-inch chest, it's easy to dismiss this kind of mild-mannered demeanor as weakness. Those who can do, those who cannot, write memorandums. But Poltu-babu has had the last laugh. At the height of the 2G scam, Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee famously embarrassed his arch rival P Chidambaram by revealing a note his ministry had sent to the PMO saying that Chidambaram could have insisted on an auction of the spectrum and avoided the whole scam.

Chidambaram saw red. Mukherjee said the letter was out in the open only because of the Right to Information Act and thus proved once again that in the hurly burly of politics, the most dangerous cut can be a paper cut and who better than a mild-mannered bhadralok to deliver it.

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PD:PKK/August, 1983, 13/A63(13) The Finance Minister, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, and Minister of Finance and National Economy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohammed Aba Al-Khail, signing an Indo-Saudi Arabia agreement for a credit assistances worth 30 crore rupees for India�s Korapur-Rayagada Railway Line Project, in New Delhi on August 11, 1983.

When he became President, writer Hamish McDonald said he would hardly make for a dynamic president since he was just another Indian politician who quibbles about details. And it's been a fairly smooth non-controversial presidency indeed proving that Pranab-babu certainly knows how to win friends and influence people.

The titles are rather curious given that they are being penned by the most unflappable, undramatic politician of them all.

Now he can settle down to finishing his memoir. And like any good Bong bhadralok, he has a lot to say. The memoir is in three parts. The first two are out — The Dramatic Decade and The Turbulent Years. The titles are rather curious given that they are being penned by the most unflappable, undramatic politician of them all.

I am sure Pranab Mukherjee will smile gently at the irony of it all as he settles down to a well-earned meal of paarshey and posto.

Happy retirement, Pranab-babu.

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