Finally, Bharat Ratna, the former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee bade goodbye to this world. He left behind a legacy that no other politician in the contemporary history can match. He spent 50 years in active politics and made his mark in every place where he was assigned. No other Indian politician had occupied so many important portfolios as Mr. Mukherjee and he very successfully performed the given tasks. He started his career as a mere clerk at the central government’s post and telegraph department after graduating from Calcutta University. He studied political science and history in the Calcutta University and did his LLB. He was involved in journalism with a small newspaper called ‘Desher Dak’ before becoming a lecturer at the Biddya Sagar College in 1963. He entered politics in 1969. While working for V K Krishna Menon in a by-election in Medenipore, Indira Gandhi spotted him and inducted him to her party.
He got elected to Rajya Sabha, (upper house), four times in 1975, 1981, 1993 and 1999. He was also leader of the Congress party in Rajya Sabha from January 1980 to December 1984. In 2012, he was elected President of India. He was described as the ‘Master Manager’ in Indian politics. He passed as a skilful administrator and a seasoned politician and a master strategist. Yet, Pranab Mukherjee led a very simple life that can remain as an example in the history of Indian politics. He cut across the line of divide and got in touch with anyone who sought his advice. He has touched every life that he came across. The NDTV paid a glowing tribute to former President saying, “It was his nature to make everyone his own.” A soft-spoken man of steely determination, Pranab has been the go-to person in times of crises, both for the Congress and others. His role as a consensus-builder and his ability to forge unity amongst diverse political parties has earned him respect of one and all.
The Indian government had announced a seven-day mourning till 6 September when the national flag will fly at half-mast on all buildings throughout India. His mortal remain was kept at 10 Rajaji Marg residence and the dignitaries including Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lok Sabha Speaker and others including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid their respect before a huge portrait of Pranab Mukherjee.
I had the unique opportunity to meet this great politician thrice, once when he was Finance Minister and then as President of the Republic and lastly as the former President at 10 Rajaji Marg. While I was posted as BSS bureau chief in New Delhi from 2009-2011, I thought of meeting him, who was undisputed leader of the Congress party. I requested Mr. Gautam Lahiri, a former president of the Press Club of India (PCI), who was very close to Mr. Mukherjee, to take me to his office for a courtesy call.
Mr. Mukherjee was holding the portfolio of finance ministry when I first met him at his official residence at 13 Talkotra Road. It was summer noon and temperature was high. Lahiri was known to all staff members of Mr. Mukherjee and as we reached the reception, they told us that Mr. Mukherjee was waiting for us at his study. Lahiri and I entered a mid-sized room that looked more like a lawyer’s chamber than that of an office of the powerful minister. Mr. Mukherjee sat in front of a big table and for his short stature, he could hardly be noticed as he almost sank in the big armed chair. There were few Almirahs around full of books and I found him reading a book with great interest. The AC was turned off so was the fan. In absence of AC and fan we were feeling uncomfortable.
Lahiri introduced me to Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and I paid my respect. As we sat, Mr. Mukherjee asked Lahiri whether anyone was waiting in the reception for him. The minister could understand our discomfort and said “I asked them to switch off the AC and the fan as I was not feeling well”. The minister said he had granted an audience to a visiting group of Bangladesh journalist the day before. He thought I came to interview him. I clarified position saying I just came to meet him.
During our short stay, Mr. Mukherjee narrated a story about the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. Mr. Pranab Mukherjee said once he wanted to speak to Mr. Singh and asked his private assistant to connect the Prime Minister. The PA connecting PM’s office passed on the line to Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. Mr. Mukherjee did not realise who was on the other end, so asked him to connect to the Prime Minister. Dr. Singh was on the line himself and said, “Sir, how are you?” Pranab Mukherjee could not think that the Prime Minister was already on the line. Then Mukherjee requested Dr. Singh not to address him as sir. “Now you are the Prime Minister of India and it does not look nice for you to address me as sir while I am only a minister in your cabinet.”
Meanwhile, I returned to Dhaka completing my tenure and duly retired from BSS in 2011. My next meeting with him was when he became the President of India. I had gone to Mumbai to attend a seminar on Indo-Bangla Water Sharing sponsored by an NGO. I knew the NGO from my Delhi days. They had requested me to get in touch with Bangladeshi politicians both from treasury bench and opposition and few retired bureaucrats. Seminar over, I headed for Delhi, but before doing so I once again requested Mr. Lahiri to arrange a meeting with the President. It was in the month of June and in the same manner, I was waiting at the PCI with suit on. My friends at the club were surprised to see me in formal dress as it was very hot outside. Someone asked, “Are you going to meet any dignitary?” We went to Rastrapati Bhavan in Lahiri’s car. Formalities over, we were ushered in a room and were served tea and some biscuits. There was another group of people waiting to meet the President—a speaker of a State assembly and a minister from the same state. As they returned, we were called in and walked through a long passage to reach the ADC’s room and then to President’s chamber. We went inside a lavishly decorated room with all wooden furniture that speak of taste and culture. Here was also a big almirah with books.
Pranab Mukherjee assumed as the President of India on 25 July 2012. He has unparalleled experience in the governance, with the rare distinction of having served at different times as Foreign, Defence, Commerce and Finance Minister as also Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.
At the very outset, I conveyed my deep gratitude to Mr. Mukherjee for agreeing to meet me. I also recalled my first meeting with him as the Finance Minister. I carried a book “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh” authored by Archer K Blood. The author was the American Consul General in the former East Pakistan in 1971.
The book is an account of the emergence of Bangladesh seen through the eyes of a sympathetic American diplomat based in Dhaka during the gathering of storm in1970 leading to the War of Liberation in 1971. Archer Blood glorifies the independence struggle of Bangladesh as a “Transformation of seemingly forlorn Dream into a bright shining Reality”. I gave him the book. He opened it and thanked me for bringing a book like this written by an American diplomat. He also said he did not read a book written by an American diplomat on independence of Bangladesh. Our meeting was scheduled for only 15 minutes, but the President dragged it to 40 minutes. I was happy to spend time with the President of India. I remember the President asking me about the debacle in Sylhet Mayoral elections, why the ruling party had lost. I distinctly remember that when we were talking at the Rastrapati Bhaban, Mayoral election in Gazipur was taking place or had just ended. I humbly said: “Although the result of Gazipur municipality is yet to be announced, the ruling party would face defeat despite Ershad’s Jatiya Party support to the ruling party candidate.”
Then Mr. Mukherjee gave a full account of how Sonia Gandhi selected him to contest for the post of the highest office in India. He said Sonia Gandhi called him to inform him about party decision. Many of the nitty-gritty of the Indian politics came to the fore as Pranab Mukherjee informed me about the Presidential poll and how he got huge number of votes even from outside his own party. I felt it was time for me to leave as the allotted time was over. I humbly requested the President if I could take a photo with him. He asked his ADC to send the photographer. We stood for the photograph and as the photo session ended, I again thanked the President for granting me an audience and spending his valuable time with us. But the President had other things in his mind; he resumed his seat and asked us to take our seats as well. He discussed few other issues of personal nature and finally called it a day. It was a great moment for me, meeting the honourable President of India. He was nice, courteous and friendly. I felt delighted to have spent so much time with a sitting President of India.
As we came out, it was already evening and the Rastrapati Bhaban looked simply majestic and gorgeous with all lights on. I thanked Mr. Lahiri, for this unmemorable meeting with the Indian President and for making my day.
I remember before leaving his chamber, the President told me that he would inform Lahiri about the book (give his opinion) I had given to him. Nothing happened and I did not ask Lahiri about it. I never knew a surprise was awaiting me. While reading Pranab Mukherjee’s book “The Dramatic Decade” published in 2015, I found that Mr. Mukherjee has quoted from Archer Blood’s book while writing on Bangladesh. I felt so happy to find that my gift (Archer K Blood’s book) got his endorsement and he quoted from the book.
Later, I met him again in January 2018, as former president but was enjoying all facilities and protocol. Entry to his residence was restricted and police guards were visible all around. This time it was bitter winter, and I had another book “Kagmari Sommelan” written by my former BSS colleague Syed Abul Maksud. His book has a historical value and it had all details of how the great conference was held amidst all odds. There were litterateurs and politicians attending the conference from West Bengal.
My friend Gautam Lahiri had fixed the appointment with Pranab Mukherjee. On 5 January 2018, we went to his 10 Rajaji Marg Road residence earmarked for former President. I also carried two books authored by my Dhaka university batch mate Mohiuddin Ahmad. He started flipping the pages of the book on Kagmari Sammelon. Sitting across him, Lahiri and I were simply onlookers, as we found him deeply engrossed in the book. Finally, Mr. Mukherjee looked at me and said he knew about the conference convened by peasant leader Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani. He referred to few incidents involving the conference. I asked him how he remembered all those things and how old he was then. With a beaming face Mr. Mukherjee said he was a student of class ten and he remembers everything. I thanked him for sparing his valuable time to meet me again. In response he said: “I am rather grateful to you for presenting me this important book. I remember he repeated the sentence. I never knew he would like the book so much. I carried a book authored by Mr. Mukherjee “The Coalition Years”1996-2012. I sought his autograph and he wrote: With Best Wishes and signed and put date. I was thrilled and begged leave of him.
In mid-August, he had undergone a brain surgery at the Army Research Referral hospital in New Delhi. Hours before his death, hospital authorities said his condition had deteriorated and he was in a state of septic shock due to lung infection. On Monday, Mukherjee’s death was announced by his son Abhijit Mukherjee.
With his departure Bangladesh lost a genuine friend, who during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, played a unique role as a trusted colleague of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
Mr. Pranab Mukherjee was made a member of Indian delegation to the 59th conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, where he narrated the gruesome murder perpetrated by Pakistan forces in East Pakistan and supported the Independence War of Bangladesh. People of Bangladesh will ever remember this distinguished personality.
Mentioning the event he said: “As a member of the Indian delegation to the 59th conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (2-10 September 1971), we took the opportunity to explain the situation to the large number of country delegates present and urged them to prevail upon their governments to speak out against violation of human rights in East Pakistan. I was then sent to the United Kingdom and then Federal Republic of Germany with a similar mandate,” Pranab Mukherjee wrote in his book “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years”.
Mr. Mukherjee will remain in the hearts of every Indian as a decent human being, who had been a go-to-person in times of crisis both for Congress and others. His role as a consensus-builder and his ability to forge unity amongst diverse political parties had earned him the respect of one and all.
President Abdul Hamid paying tributes to Pranab Mukherjee said, “He played an important role in creating public opinion in the international arena in support of the Liberation War of Bangladesh.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recalled his outstanding and unforgettable contributions to Bangladesh’s Liberation War as a politician and real well-wisher. She called him a true friend of Bangladesh and guardian like figure to her family. Hasina also said, “He was our guardian and family friend and he always provided courage for us in any crisis,” she said.
With the cremation of Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday at the Lodhi Road crematorium in New Delhi, a chapter in the India’s political history came to an end but his contributions to India would be long remembered. As I pay my deep respect to his memory, I do distinctly remember all those precious moments that I had the privilege to spend with him. I will cherish those memories for years to come. Rest in Peace, Pranab Mukherjee.
The writer is a senior journalist and former bureau chief of BSS in New Delhi