A Date With Pranab Mukherjee At Rashtrapati Bhavan

07/03/2015 8:04 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
The illuminated Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, is seen before President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee participate in a State Dinner, in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. Obama's arrival Sunday morning in the bustling capital of New Delhi marked the first time an American leader has visited India twice during his presidency. Obama is also the first to be invited to attend India's Republic Day festivities, which commence Monday and mark the anniversary of the enactment of the country's democratic constitution. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

No matter how formidable the stature of the person who occupies it, Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi seems simply too grand to serve as a home for any individual, even if that person happens to be the President of India.

When I was invited to interview the current occupant, President Pranab Mukherjee, I was filled with some trepidation, although over a 50-year career in international journalism I'd met scores of world leaders. The President of India almost never grants individual interviews, so this was a special occasion for me.

Mr. Mukherjee - the 13th president of India - has long been a giant of Indian politics, and was said to be not an easy person to interview.

Accompanying me was Mohsina Kidwai, another venerable politician, and a Congress Party colleague of the 79-year-old Mr. Mukherjee for more than five decades. The 83-year-old Mrs. Kidwai, the grand dame of Indian politics, is writing an autobiography for HarperCollins, and I've been assisting her with interviews. Hence the visit to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the second biggest home of a head of state after the Palazzo del Quirinal in Rome, where the Italian president lives.

I had always viewed Rashtrapati Bhavan from the outside: it's impossible not to notice it. The four-story, 355-room edifice sits on top of Raisina Hill amidst nearly 400 acres of sculptured gardens and vast grounds. I had heard glowing descriptions of the interiors from my friend Sunita Kohli, the architectural historian and designer, who had helped restore the palace in 1985 and 2010 to the original grandeur created by the British architects Edwin Landseer Lutyens and Herbert Baker.

The project took 17 years to complete: 29,000 workers were employed, using 700 million bricks and three million cubic feet of stone. Lord Irwin, then the British Viceroy, moved into the palace in 1931. After India won freedom from the British Raj in 1947, the British Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was asked to stay on as Independent India's first governor general; the next governor general was Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. When India formally became a republic in 1950, the country's first president, Rajendra Prasad, renamed the Viceroy's Lodge as Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Even with a formal invitation, gaining entry to the entrails of Rashtrapati Bhavan can be exhausting. Security is tight. Metal detectors are everywhere. Then one walks through a long corridor lined with portraits of Indian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Subhash Chandra Bose. There's a lovely painting of President Mukherjee.

It was Mr. Mukherjee who inaugurated a museum in Rashtrapati Bhavan in July 2014 so that the public could get a glimpse of some of the priceless paintings and statues in the presidential collection. There's a section on the lives of previous presidents.

Titular though the Indian president's position is, involving mostly ceremonial matters, Mr. Mukherjee maintains a busy schedule. Besides being President, he's also an author. A recent memoir of the Indira Gandhi era garnered good reviews, and has sold well.

Because of his earlier commitments, I was required to wait in a handsomely appointed anteroom. A liveried steward offered cheese sandwiches, spicy savouries, and ginger tea - the Rashtrapati Bhavan equivalent of high tea.

Mrs. Kidwai and I were then escorted by uniformed military aides to President Mukherjee's personal office, which was lined with books and, of course, Indian flags. He wore a dark suit that was buttoned up at the neck, what's known as a "bandh gala."

It occurred to me that for a 79-year-old man, his face was surprisingly unlined. He was in a cheerful mood, and spoke at length about his association with Mrs. Kidwai, and about the importance of economic, educational and social empowerment of women in India.

At the start of our session, I asked him if it would be all right for me to take notes; I didn't want to violate protocol.

"Of course - how else are you going to remember what I said?" President Mukherjee said, smiling.

I was struck by how much detail he offered by way of context and perspective to his recollections about Mrs. Kidwai's career, and about the evolving role of women's contribution to national development.

"Women and young people generally are the hope of India," he said. "That's why I'm optimistic about our future."

The interview lasted nearly an hour. Then President Mukherjee rose, and a staff photographer appeared to take our pictures.

I asked Mr. Mukherjee if he would sign a copy of his book that I had brought along.

"Well, according to protocol, I should not be signing anything," the President said. "But I'll sign the book for you -- if you promise to read it."

I couldn't bring myself to tell him that I'd already read his book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, and that I'd enjoyed it. He was, after all, the President of India, and he was already breaking protocol to inscribe a copy of his book for me.

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