Pranab Mukherjee was a unique entity in our political firmament. In a sense, he was an intergenerational link. He never allowed the present to become hostage to the past or the vision of the future to be blurred by the complexities of today when he had said, “As Indians, we must of course learn from the past; but we must remain focused on the future.”
I first came in contact with Pranab da, as he was affectionately called, when I was working as special assistant to Professor DP Chattopadhyaya (1973-1981). I had no inkling at that time that political fortunes would take a full turn and I would be working as his special assistant too (1980-1981).
He had a memory which could challenge any modern computer and leave the listener dumbstruck by its phenomenal precision. He was often described as a living computer. This always gave him a vantage position in public life, for political entities are invariably short on memory and ensuing political dynamics.
While his contemporaries had strayed into different configurations, he remained fiercely loyal to Indira Gandhi. Her unquestioned dependence on Pranab da and his advice had made him an unofficial major power centre and held many in awe. When he asked me for the names of people who could possibly be appointed as Mrs Gandhi’s principal secretary, I had given a panel of names which included Dr PC Alexander. His advice was finally accepted in selecting Alexander as the new principal secretary.
In recognition of his ability, he assumed the office of the finance minister (1982-1984). Our paths would cross again during this period when I was posted to Japan as minister, economic and commerce (1981-1984) and we were seeking access to the borrowings from the Asian Development Bank and securing the iconic Maruti-Suzuki agreement.
Pranab was an early liberaliser. While holding the dual responsibilities of deputy chairman of the Planning Commission (1991-1996) and commerce minister (1993-1995), he recognised that the Licence Raj had done India enormous economic harm. The early efforts at trade liberalisation were initiated by him. His audacious step to have the first large aluminium project as a joint venture with Aluminium Pechiney took place when he was serving dual responsibilities of minister, commerce, and minister, steel and mines.
Subsequently, he served a second stint as finance minister (2009-2012) under Manmohan Singh. In his second stint, Pranab undertook the bold decision for the first time to explicitly cut public debt as a proportion of the GDP. During this period in 1984, Pranab was rated as the best finance minister in the world according to a survey by Euromoney, and, subsequently in 2010, he was also awarded “Finance Minister of the Year for Asia” by Emerging Markets.
When I was a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha (2008-2014), Pranab was the finance minister. I sometimes excited the jealousy of my colleagues that he would entertain my comments out of his affection and generosity.
Many names were under consideration as to who would be Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s successor. He had expressed some disappointment to me in passing that he must exit from North Block and clearly since there was no room in South Block, he would certainly hope and wish to occupy the Raisina Hills. I could not do much, except that perhaps I did speak to one of the important partners of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nitish Kumar, who had a great liking for Pranab da, given his dignity and equanimity in conducting multiple public offices.
During his presidential swearing-in speech, he had remarked that, “I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi.” He brought dignity, grace and decorum to the President’s office. He was unswerving in the emphasis that India’s destiny lay in its innovative capabilities and had remarked, “For us, democracy is not a gift, but a sacred trust.” He was respected across the political spectrum for his fair, rational and appropriate advice.
Given his strong cultural interests, his late wife Suvra Mukherjee was a vibrant person in Delhi circles, organising lessons in Indian classical music and dance; these values have been inculcated in his children, Abhijit and Sharmistha.
For a long time, he was inseparable from a pipe and had perhaps the most treasured pipe collection anybody could dream of.
Pranab Babu was a prolific reader and writer. When he was working on his own autobiography, published in several volumes, he had told me that he could do so with felicity because he had kept a detailed diary of events. Even though some parts of it were lost, this did not deter him in any way given his memory recall.
Pranab da consented to write a foreword to my autobiography. When the release had been planned before it got delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, he had kindly consented to grace the occasion for a few minutes and speak about the Indian economic growth process. While his foreword would remain as a coveted piece, I would greatly miss the supreme privilege of having him as the guest of honour.
NK Singh is the chairperson of the 15th Finance Commission and a former Member of Parliament