In 2004, when Sonia Gandhi did a Mahatma and nominated Manmohan Singh as her prime ministerial choice, Pranab was not surprised and accepted her announcement with perfect equanimity. Two decades ago, when Pranab was finance minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, he made Manmohan the Reserve Bank Governor. It must have upset him to see the man he had appointed governor of the Reserve Bank of India being catapulted to that coveted position from nowhere, but externally he showed exemplary grace and restraint. It became obvious to Pranab that the trust deficit that marked Rajiv’s era still lingered in the dynasty in his case and he happily accepted his crumbs.This, in a way, sums up Pranab’s own tryst with destiny. With the Congress in power at the Centre, he would always be the quintessential number two and the principal troubleshooter for both the party and Government, in Parliament and outside. His worth would always be recognised by any prime minister, but he would never become one. He might be Her Majesty’s most loyal, obedient and tireless servant but the crown would never be his. He would remain so close to perhaps what many think he deserves, yet so distant.Paradoxically, his so-called indispensability has been his greatest handicap in pursuing another dream that Pranab loves to cherish, as he enters the winter of his political career-to retire from public life as India’s President. Five years ago, when the Congress was looking for a suitable presidential candidate, Pranab discreetly expressed his desire to move to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Left leaders, with whom Pranab enjoys unique rapport and who were then supporting UPA 1, took his brief and persuaded Sonia to accept Pranab’s candidature. One night when Pranab was busy in his small home office at 13 Talkatora Road, scanning as he does almost every word written on an official file, he received an urgent summon from Sonia. He realised why he was being called and left home in sheer trepidation.advertisementSonia broached the matter with characteristic dignity and candour and lost no time to convince Pranab that she was, per se, not opposed to his candidature. Then after a pause, she asked Pranab the most baffling of all questions he has faced in life. Sonia said, smiling, “You will have to do me a favour. Just tell me, who can replace you in the Cabinet and perform your role. Give me a name and you will be our candidate.” Pranab sat dumbfounded for a while and then broke into laughter. Sonia, too, joined in.Today, through a dramatic turn of events, Pranab finds himself days away from being coronated the First Citizen of the largest democracy in the world. Ironically, it has nothing to do with his indispensability as the quintessential troubleshooter for the Government and the party. As a matter of fact, his so-called indispensability would now be felt more acutely than ever. Sink or swim, he would ideally have remained the first mate of this badly battered ship, hand-holding a nervous and fatigued captain. Pranab knew that Sonia would not even entertain the idea of his leaving a ship that is facing the roughest political weather midway through its journey.What exactly happened that now makes him an almost consensus candidate for the whole country, Mamata Banerjee’s stubbornness against his candidature and the NDA’s pathetic indecisiveness notwithstanding? One can ascribe this largely to three factors that swung the pendulum in his favour.First and foremost, his personal and working relationship with Sonia Gandhi has improved markedly. Since he was dumped by Rajiv after supposedly overtly exposing his ambitions for the highest office of the country, Pranab was never considered by the Gandhi family to be someone with the highest and unflinching loyalty towards them. Anybody who has followed Congress politics would know that this counts as the most important ingredient for a Congressman, if he has to harbour any political ambition within the party. This is precisely why Sonia chose Manmohan over Pranab as the prime minister of the UPA 1 government. She knew that Manmohan would not deliver half of what Pranab could as a prime minister, but could not take a chance on Pranab’s loyalty towards 10 Janpath. Eight years on, she is far more trusting. Throughout the UPA regime, Pranab has stood by her through thick and thin, bailed the Government and party out of sticky situations innumerable times and has never dissented in any policy matter that has either been her brainchild or had her approval. Both Sonia and Pranab have found their comfort zones. Pranab, doubly alert about taking on the crown, is happy to stay within his limits. Sonia, on the other hand, sees no perceptible threat to her supremacy from this Bengali Brahmin. A few days back, Pranab Babu told me, “I have no problem with Mrs Gandhi now. We have complete mutual trust.” His candidature for the position of the First Citizen bears testimony to his assessment.advertisementOn the other hand, the relationship between the Prime Minister and his No. 2 in the Cabinet has changed from steadfast to discomfiting. Five years ago, Manmohan was one of those who believed that Pranab was indispensable to his Cabinet. Today, he won’t feel hurt if his No. 2 leaves for Raisina Hill. It is well-known that Pranab was not happy to have someone as his boss who once served under him. However, he was a sport and reconciled with his fate and carried on nonetheless. As a Prime Minister, Manmohan has relied heavily on Pranab on almost everything and Pranab responded gamely. However, of late, the chemistry between the two has deteriorated considerably, more so after Pranab had assumed the role of finance minister. The two differed on critical issues concerning the economic health of India and the ways to bail the country out of the financial crisis that it has plunged into. In reality, Pranab had no choice but to differ with Manmohan on key economic issues, as those came in the way of Sonia’s philosophy, and lost the Prime Minister’s confidence in the bargain. It appears that Manmohan will be more than happy to see North Block vacated by Pranab Mukherjee. To be fair to the Prime Minister, he could actually be willing to see Pranab as president, as a befitting culmination of his glittering political career. So, this time around, he took no time to agree to his candidature.However, if there is one thing that has sealed the issue of the presidential candidature in Pranab’s favour, it must be the Mamata factor. It was well-known that Mamata would oppose his candidature, any which way. If she did so within the UPA, and supported Hamid Ansari, the other name that Sonia had proposed, it could still have been difficult for the finance minister. But Mamata took the issue so far that Sonia was left with no choice but to stand by the septuagenarian Leader of the Lok Sabha. The way Mamata snubbed Sonia and unilaterally announced her choices for president, it was a personal affront for Sonia. If the God-fearing Bengali has to thank one person who ensured that he becomes the country’s 13th president, it must be Mamata, whom he fondly refers to as his sister.Pranab Mukherjee’s meteoric rise to the highest echelons of power in Lutyens’ Delhi and his Hanif Mohammad-like interminable innings at the top is a saga unmatched and unparalleled in the political history of post-Independence Bengal. Bidhan Chandra Roy, who was an intimate friend of Motilal Nehru and called Jawaharlal by his first name, was a more redoubtable and venerable political figure. The Marxist patriarch Jyoti Basu remained, all his life, one of the nation’s most respected and adorable political luminaries. But none of them went outside the confines of their state to plunge into national politics. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the flamboyant Bengal Congress leader, enjoyed Indira Gandhi’s confidence in the mid-1970s, including being a part of the think-tank that clamped the Emergency in order to stave off the growing countrywide resentment against Indira’s government. While Pranab Mukherjee remained as loyal as ever to his dethroned leader, S.S. Ray deserted the sinking ship after Indira’s defeat and soon parted company with Indira to join the opposition ranks in the party. When Indira returned to power in 1980, Pranab was rewarded for his loyalty and given an important Cabinet berth. Two years later he was promoted as the finance minister. Coupled with his second innings as finance minister in the Manmohan-led UPA 2, Pranab now enjoys the unique distinction of India’s longest serving finance minister, having presented Union Budgets in both state-controlled and neo-liberal economies. By his own admission, this job has always been dearest to his heart.advertisementPranab’s political successes also baffle the pundits and defy conventional political wisdom about leadership. Unlike Bidhan Chandra Roy, Jyoti Basu or S.S. Ray, he was not born with a silver spoon. He comes from a nondescript village in the backward district of Birbhum known only for Tagore’s Santiniketan. Pranab returns to his village every year during the four days of Durga Puja to perform the rituals himself. God-fearing and superstitious, Pranab can chant almost nonchalantly all the Sanskrit mantras from memory, Pranab performs his puja every morning and everywhere. That is the only time during the day when he does not entertain any visitor or a telephone call. Not even from the prime minister. His bond with his gods and goddesses leaves no room for worldly distractions.During the NDA regime, in the Lok Sabha, Pranab once got embroiled in a debate that touched upon the drunken behaviour of some of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Pranab’s contention that the scriptures indeed contained such references outraged the saffron brigade who rose to protest in unison against the Opposition leader’s irreverent attitude towards providence. True to his wont, Pranab started rattling relevant shlokas one after another with appropriate English translations. Later, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Pranab, “I have warned Murli Manohar Joshi, he should not take panga with you in religious matters. He does not know you can recite the entire Chandi Path from memory.” A few months later, when Pranab narrowly survived a road accident, someone advised him not to abuse Ma Durga or her wayward husband ever in future. Pranab laughed heartily and relayed this piece of advice to every one he met in the following few days.At a time when political leadership within the Congress party belonged largely to the urban, Anglophile aristocrats or reputed barristers with awesome family pedigree, Pranab went to his village school and then graduated from a private district college. Although not a brilliant student, he stood out in the crowd despite his short physical stature for possessing an alert, inquisitive and well-informed mind. My father Sunil Chattopadhyay, who was his teacher in college, fondly remembers, even in his 90s, these remarkable qualities in his favourite student. Despite his teacher’s imposing stature and personality, Pranab as a student would never hesitate to badger him with his frequent, probing questions about Tudor or Stuart England. As a student, he aspired to become either a professor or a lawyer. He did both early in his career and then plunged head and shoulder into fulltime politics.The tell-tale signs of Pranab’s rural background and his ordinary education stayed with him even as he continued to scale newer heights in his party and government. Despite his four-decade-long Delhi life and compulsive, constant and intimate interactions with northerners, his Hindi remains atrocious and his English pronunciation evokes muted laughter in any congregation of well-bred, English-educated elite. Early in his ministerial career, Indira Gandhi took note of it and suggested to Pranab to retain an English tutor to brush up his pronunciation. She even volunteered to find him one who would do this embarrassing job discreetly. But Pranab flatly refused, saying, “Madam, there is no point trying to square a zero. What has been done cannot be undone. I have to carry the baggage of my background wherever I go.” Indira did not agree but also chose not to dissuade him. Pranab himself is critically aware of this limitation and often laughs at himself over this handicap. At heart, he wants to always represent Bharat in the hallowed company of public school educated Indians.Of course, politics ran in his DNA since childhood as his father was a devout Gandhian, an important district and state Congress functionary and was well-known for his simple, spartan life. He was also elected to the state Assembly. But Pranab owes his rise primarily to his two mentors- Ajoy Mukherjee, who brought him into limelight in the state, and S.S. Ray, who was instrumental in nominating him as the party’s candidate in the Rajya Sabha. Ajoy Mukherjee left the Congress in the late 1960s to form his own regional outfit Bangla Congress that aligned with the Left parties to form Bengal’s first non-Congress government. He spotted in a young Pranab the sterling qualities that earned him acclaim later in life and also depended on him for carrying out both party and governmental activities. The regional outfit withered in no time and Pranab eventually came back to the parent body to reclaim his place.But it was during those days of flirtation with the Left that he came in close touch with the communist leaders, notably Jyoti Basu, and cemented a life-long relationship that survived the four-decade-long vicissitudes in regional and national politics. Basu loved him like a son and Pranab depended on him for his well-meaning and pragmatic advice. He still remains the Lefts’ best bet in the Congress despite occasional estrangements and bitter political fights. Pranab understands the dynamics of Left politics and their ideological compulsions but also knows at the same time how and when to call their bluff. When Prakash Karat remained adamant in his opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal and ultimately withdrew support to the Government, Pranab warned him about its inevitable fallout on Bengal politics. That was the day he resolved to form an alliance with the unpredictable Mamata Banerjee and teach the Left a lesson.Pranab left Bengal’s shores to join the national politics in the late 1960s and remained, with intermittent breaks, always a Rajya Sabha member till he first tasted his victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004. When his own state did not suit him either for numerical deficiencies or bitter factional quarrels, he sought re-entry to the Rajya Sabha even from Gujarat. For a long period of time, both in the state as well as Centre, he was ridiculed as a “rootless wanderer” who survived on Indira’s “misplaced trust and confidence”. ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury, another political heavyweight from West Bengal in the 1970s and ’80s and Pranab’s arch-rival in the state’s factional politics, often took potshots at him deriding him as a “homeless Gujarati”.At heart, Pranab knew the pain, agony and humiliation the derisive epithet carried. When in 2004, he was declared a winner from Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency in Murshidabad, an almost impregnable Left bastion, he became publicly emotional like a child. Tears of joy rolled down his face when he said in his first post-victory public meeting, “From now on, no one will call me a rootless wanderer, an alien in his homeland. For me this is a dream come true, a dream I have cherished and nourished all my life.” Arguably that was the happiest day in his political life. After that he became so superstitious that he refused to move into a bigger bungalow allotted to him by virtue of his seniority in the Cabinet. After all, it was from this auspicious house at Talkatora Road that he first tasted his election victory.Since then he has fallen in love with his constituency, particularly the children who call him “Pranab Dadu” (grandpa) and gather around him every time he disembarks from his helicopter. Every time, he spends some time with them before leaving for official or party engagements. On February 5 this year, he was almost gheraoed by a group of mostly barebodied Muslim children. They complained that they missed the annual khichdi this winter as their ‘grandpa’ did not organise the local tribal fair that over the years had become an annual event. Pranab felt ashamed and wanted to compensate with some chocolate he was carrying in his pockets. One of the boys, aged around 10, told their ‘grandpa’ most sympathetically, “Dadu, we know why you cannot come here regularly. Our fathers and uncles tell us that you remain so busy in Delhi that you have no time for a bath or timely lunch.” As soon as he finished, another one added, “Dadu, don’t stay in Delhi. Come here to play with us.”It was not that he did not try his luck in the intervening period when he was a member of the Rajya Sabha. He contested once from Malda, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s home turf, and again from Bolpur, his own district headquarters and lost miserably on both occasions. In 1980, he contested from Bolpur against Indira’s explicit warning. Pranab thought otherwise and went ahead to face a disgraceful defeat. Indeed, he felt humiliated and for a time feared he would not get a berth in the new Union Cabinet. But Indira had other intentions. She knew Pranab would now feel lonely, dejected and despondent in the crowd of party colleagues who had won and quietly sent her son Sanjay to receive him at the airport and bring him straight to her home. She gave Pranab a dressing down for not listening to her advice and told him what he has heard all his life from detractors: “As a minister you will always pass with distinction. But you have no clue about peoples’ pulse even in your home district. Now go home and await the cabinet secretary’s telephone call.” Pranab’s voice choked as he narrated to me this incident to explain the chemistry of his enviable relations with Indira. Victory or defeat, the pipe-smoking dhoti-clad little man would always find favour with the ruling deity.Was he a sycophant like Debakanta Barua, who once equated India with Indira? Pranab denies the charge emphatically, recalling from his elephantine memory several occasion when he had fought with Indira Gandhi on various issues on politics and governance. Often, he claims, the former prime minister changed or modified her views upon hearing Pranab’s arguments, backed almost always by sound logic and unimpeachable facts. When she did not, Indira would just say, “Ok professor, I have heard you long enough. Now go and do what I tell you.” The verdict pronounced, Pranab would follow the instructions in letter and spirit. Having been betrayed by a number of senior party colleagues before, during and after Emergency, Indira found in Pranab a lieutenant who could be trusted almost blindly with the most difficult and sensitive job. For her, Pranab could do no wrong.When Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother and won the Lok Sabha elections with a result that overshadowed Nehru’s electoral successes, Pranab failed to see the writing on the wall. Rajiv quickly initiated what may be loosely termed as a ‘de-Indiraisation’ process both in the party and the government. All of his mother’s erstwhile confidants were either shown the door or found their wings clipped. The palace recruited its own Praetorian Guards led by the two Aruns (Nehru and Singh) as Rajiv wanted to emerge as the Peter Pan of Indian politics.Pranab Mukherjee lost his berth in the Cabinet after the 1984 elections and was promptly despatched to Calcutta to take charge of the hopeless and squabbling Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) in a state dominated overwhelmingly at every level by the Reds. Pranab did not fare too badly in his unaccustomed role and the party did reasonably well in Calcutta municipal elections, losing it by a thin majority. Arun Nehru sensed in Pranab’s victory the first signs of his possible re-emergence and lost no time to ensure his exit from the party. A few months later, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, who succeeded Pranab as the state PCC chief, received a call from Arun Nehru who told him, “We are issuing a statement expelling Pranab from the party. Please sign it and tell all others to do the same.” Even Dasmunshi, a rival of Pranab in factional politics, found the decision too harsh and incomprehensible as he put down the receiver and broke the news to me.Of course, Pranab, too, played his part in aggravating the crisis. His exclusion from the Cabinet, his banishment to Calcutta and his gradual marginalisation in the party now dominated by Doon School alumni enraged and suffocated him so much that he gradually joined the anti-Rajiv bandwagon led then by the octogenarian Uttar Pradesh Congress leader Kamalapati Tripathi, who, like Pranab, found himself marginalised in the new dispensation. Gundu Rao from Karnataka and Jagannath Mishra from Bihar also rallied behind Tripathi to up the ante against Rajiv and his coterie. Kamalapati shot off a long letter to Rajiv criticising the various policies pursued by his government. The letter got leaked to the press causing a great deal of embarrassment to the prime minister. Reading the letter, Rajiv instantaneously realised who could be its possible author. Many years later, when the two buried the hatchet, Rajiv told Pranab, half in jest, “The moment I finished reading the letter, I knew you were the culprit. For it was impossible for Punditji to pen down such a brilliantly crafted and informed letter.” No wonder the axe fell on the identified rebel, sending shockwaves among Pranab’s friends and causing jubilation among his adversaries. Indira’s most trusted lieutenant now found himself on the streets almost like a leper becoming an overnight untouchable in the party. His South Delhi home was raided by Income Tax authorities, adding to Pranab’s growing humiliation.Pranab was no Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Neither did he have in his armoury the elusive Swiss Bank account number to nail the prime minister effectively. He was never a leader of the masses and lacked V.P. Singh’s oratorial skills as a rabble rouser. The comrades who gathered around him in Calcutta and Delhi comprised a ragtag army of disgruntled, discredited and unpopular Congressmen whose cooperation counted for virtually nothing. Notwithstanding the inherent disabilities afflicting him and his associates, Pranab remained adamant and went ahead to form his own political outfit, Rashtriya Samajbadi Congress. The party contested the 1987 Assembly polls in West Bengal only to lose deposits in almost all the constituencies. Realising the harsh ground reality of realpolitik, Pranab became desperate for re-entry into the Congress. Looking back, Pranab now admits that he made a mistake. But with a rider, “I was then only 48, having spent nine years in the Union Cabinet and 14 years in the Rajya Sabha. I did not know what to do with the remaining years of my life. I could not go back to either teaching or the bar as politics was my only vocation. In utter desperation, I floated the party to somehow remain relevant in politics. It was quite another matter that the madness proved utterly futile.”By the time Rajiv gave his nod to Pranab’s re-entry, much water had flown down the Yamuna. Arun Nehru, the man primarily responsible for Pranab’s discomfiture, was now a Cabinet colleague of V. P. Singh in his Janata Dal government along with Arif Mohammad Khan and Ram Dhan, who together had earlier hoisted the banner of revolt and floated a small organisation called Jan Morcha. Even Arun Singh and Amitabh Bachchan were on the wane, falling from Rajiv’s grace for different reasons. Rajiv himself was now a brooding King Lear, having lost the 1989 elections and still enmeshed in the Bofors scandal. Both of them in their own ways had already learnt their lessons. Pranab learnt where he was found wanting and Rajiv learnt what constituted loyalty in palace politics. Indira’s son now extended a warm welcome to his mother’s favourite and Pranab arrived at 10 Janpath to admit his mistakes and pledge total loyalty hereafter. Unfortunately, even before he could prove his worth, Rajiv was tragically assassinated. Pranab watched everything from a distance, maintaining a very low profile in the two years between his re-entry and Rajiv’s demise. He did not know then, a few years from now, he would serve Rajiv’s widow and regain his proverbial No. 2 position.P.V. Narasimha Rao, who emerged as the consensus choice for the prime ministerial berth following the 2001 Lok Sabha elections, was one of Pranab’s dearest personal friends and colleagues. He always held Rao in high esteem and admired his erudition. He continued to visit 9 Motilal Nehru Road well after Sonia’s entry into politics leading to Rao’s virtual obliteration from public memory. At a time when most of the heavyweights in the Congress ignored the former prime minister to avoid incurring the Lady’s wrath, Pranab used to call on him regularly and gave him company in his forlorn, silent years of self-exile. Pranab was a loyalist indeed, but never a sycophant.Yet Rao never accommodated him in his Cabinet when he took oath and formed his new council of ministers. Pranab waited at his Greater Kailash home, all dressed up for the oath, but the call never came. He was deeply hurt since Rao consulted him on ministry formation regularly in the preceding days and never hinted that Pranab would be denied a berth. Instead, like a consolation prize, Pranab was made deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. But Pranab, as always, took up the new challenge in right earnest and concentrated wholeheartedly in shaping India’s planning process well in tune with the reform agenda of Narasimha Rao’s new government. Initially, he was sceptical about the efficacy and desirability of the reform measures, because of his socialistic grooming. But he soon gave in and realised the pressing urgency for structural reforms to bring the country out of the financial quagmire it found itself then. Today, Pranab is a staunch reformer, almost indistinguishable from a Chidambaram or a Montek Singh Ahluwalia. As finance minister, he said, “I will vigorously pursue FDI in retail and pension reforms and all the pending reform issues. None of these should prove detrimental to the Congress’s electoral prospects.”However, a few years later, Pranab was made the country’s external affairs minister and spearheaded, along with Manmohan Singh, India’s dialogue with the US over the controversial and momentous nuclear deal. Manmohan was showered with accolades for bravely sticking to his guns and calling the Left’s bluff, yet it was Pranab who burnt the midnight oil to facilitate the smooth passage of the bill. The Left opposition to the proposed bill influenced some of his election-wary party colleagues who mounted discrete pressure on Pranab to somehow avoid this crisis. “The heavens would not fall upon us if we put the deal on hold,” some of them argued anxiously. Manmohan remained adamant to the point of threatening with resignation if the deal did not come through while Pranab was busy confabulating with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav, requesting them to come to the aid of the party in the likely event of the Left withdrawing support. With the deal struck with the two Yadavs ensuring a sure victory for the Government in Parliament, Manmohan and Pranab felt ecstatic. The empire decided to strike back, leaving the Left parties crying wolf in suicidal isolation.Pranab also has high regard for Manmohan Singh for his honesty and integrity as also his brilliance as an economist. In the last eight years Pranab has been working with him, the duo never fought with each other in public. Manmohan shows him warmth and respect and trusts his experienced judgments on almost every contentious issue, even when the two disagree. Pranab felt flattered when after his accident on a Bengal highway, Manmohan sent him a special aircraft to expeditiously carry him back to New Delhi. He was pleasantly surprised to see the Prime Minister at the airport to receive him. As Pranab says, “I am more than comfortable with Manmohan Singh as my Prime Minister. It is not a politically correct statement. I mean every word of it.” For him, a non-political technocrat at the helm is far better than having a cunning and experienced political fox as a boss.For once, the relations soured and almost came to a breaking point when a confidential note of the finance ministry indicating in a roundabout manner P. Chidambaram’s complicity in the 2G scam mysteriously leaked to the press and the media held Pranab responsible. This engraged Pranab so much that he hurriedly cancelled his pending appointments in Washington and rushed to New York to settle his score with the Prime Minister. He told Manmohan that enough was indeed enough. He would catch the next flight home and put in his papers. It took a long time for Manmohan to assuage his finance minister’s frayed tempers as he accepted the fact in right earnest that Pranab could not and should not be blamed for the leakage and that it was indeed an act of indiscretion by his own office. It was during the heated discussions that Pranab let out a secret to Manmohan that he never told any one before. “Mrs Gandhi gave me a very important piece of advice. She told me not to keep any copy of an official paper that was being sent to the Prime Minister’s Office. Till now, I have never deviated from following her advice. But now I will give it a second thought.”With Sonia, Pranab shares a cosy and comfortable relationship based upon mutual respect and admiration. Since Indira Gandhi’s demise, Pranab has never aspired to be an insider in the sanctum sanctorum, notwithstanding his persistent, commanding influence and contribution in matters of governance and party affairs. Consequently, he maintains a dignified distance and volunteers his comments and judgments when they are asked for. But when he does so, he does it in his usual, free-wheeling, noholds-barred style, often touching the raw nerves of some of Sonia’s known favourites. As he learnt from Machiavelli, the prince must always speak his mind.There are certain traits in Sonia’s character and leadership that Pranab admires unhesitatingly, not failing to point out, of course by comparison, where and why the daughterin-law often overshadows her illustrious mother-in-law. According to Pranab, Sonia is not a habitual liar and says the unpalatable truth on your face. You know where she stands on every given issue. Second, in matters of party politics she does not play favourites and does not encourage factional leaders to play one against the other, a trait that has historically dominated Congress affairs. She has allowed the chief ministers to stay in power for as long as they were delivering. Third, she is a patient listener and values every one’s judgment. Often, she goes with the consensus and never tries to impose her will or decision either on the party or government. “I find myself very comfortable in such a transparent atmosphere,” Pranab says without batting an eyelid.The fact that Pranab Mukherjee never had to bother so much about his survival in the hurly burly of electoral or party politics has done him a world of good in making him what he became, Mr Indispensable. While most of his party compatriots over generations had to split their time between seeking governmental power and party positions and remained embroiled in state politics, Pranab, since the late 1960s, spent all his time in New Delhi, concentrating on matters of governance and statecraft, developing in the process a formidable storehouse of experience, wisdom and insight. With the solitary exception of the Ministry of Home Affairs, there is hardly any important Cabinet berth Pranab has not occupied at some time or the other during his long ministerial innings spread over four decades. He owes this rare opportunity to none other than Indira Gandhi, who spotted in him the rare qualities of intellect, diligence, perseverance and obedience and continued to patronise Pranab like a doting elder sister, allowing him the comfort and certainty of both a permanent Rajya Sabha membership and a coveted Cabinet berth. By the time she met her tragic death at the hands of assassins, Pranab had already emerged as one who could be ignored by the Congress at its own peril. If the Congress wanted to run a government, it needed the tallest short man from West Bengal.It is of course to Pranab’s credit that he utilised this opportunity almost like a frontbencher school student, learning and remembering facts and figures like no one else. A voracious reader since childhood, Pranab cannot sit idle without reading something, even rubbish. It could be the official files, a hardbound serious book on history, politics, economics or diplomacy, a biography or a memoir, a newspaper or a periodical or even a bestseller written either in English or Bengali. He can concentrate wholeheartedly on a Panjika if he finds nothing else to read. This habit, backed by a graphic memory and a rare capacity to slog 20 hours-a-day if necessary, distinguishes him in a crowd of fortune seekers. For facts, he does not have to check the records, for they are always on his fingertips. For both Manmohan and Sonia, the little man acts not only as a shock absorber when confronted with crisis, but also as a living encyclopaedia.Does this quality always stand him in good state? The irony was brought home by Narasimha Rao soon after Pranab joined his Cabinet and started baring himself in his usual swashbuckling form. In one of the Cabinet meetings, Pranab got into a heated debate with Balram Jakhar, the then minister for agriculture and rural development, over the issue of fixing of remunerative prices for the farmer. The little man from Birbhum rejected the imposing Jat’s arguments with compelling facts and interpretations and then asked Jakhar to go back to his ministry to read his detailed notes on a file he wrote 20 years ago. Then to every one’s silent bewilderment, Pranab recalled from memory every word he wrote on the file concerned. The meeting over, Rao called Pranab aside and whispered into his ears, “Why on earth do you take the trouble of remembering so much? Didn’t Rajiv throw you out from the party?” The two friends exchanged a hearty laugh. Pranab realised that memory could also be agonisingly painful.On a typical day, when he is in Delhi, Pranab spends the first few hours in the morning performing his puja and walking a compulsive 30 rounds around the lawns of his official bungalow. He says the workout keeps him physically fit and mentally alert at the age of 76. A village boy who had to travel miles every day to reach his pathshala in his childhood, Pranab feels there is no substitute for a measured morning walk. For almost 10 to 12 hours a day, he remains busy in Parliament or in his office at North Block, holding meetings, receiving visitors and telephone calls. Given a chance, in the afternoon he takes a quick nap in the office in his ante chamber. He also spends several hours at his home office, receiving callers till late into the night. Before he retires for the day, he writes a page or two in his closely guarded diary narrating the day’s important meetings and incidents. An avowed student of history, Pranab knows, these diaries would one day gain the status of primary source material for any scholar willing to write and reflect on the country’s political history during his time.His lifestyle is frugal just like his culinary habits. For him, there is hardly any time for rest or leisure or even socialising with friends, although like a good Bengali he relishes adda. Spending time with him is always a learning experience for anyone who calls on him. He is a loving father, a caring husband and a playful grandfather. He does not go to fancy hotels except on official occasions. In matters of personal finance, he is quite a miser, counting every little penny he spends.Consider this. On a late evening Pranab came to Kolkata to attend the wedding of a junior party colleague. By the time he landed, all the shops were closed and he did not have a gift in his hands to offer. An accompanying political colleague sitting in front of his car suggested that he could find some fine saris for the bride from his wife’s boutique nearby. On enquiry, he found out the price varied between Rs 1,000 to Rs 20,000 and solicited Pranab’s advice. Pat came Pranab’s reply “Go for Rs 1,000.”He was determined to relinquish his ministerial responsibilities in the event of a change of guard either before or after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Rahul Gandhi, though Pranab’s favourite, is junior to him by several generations and in his view, “should be allowed to pick his new ministerial tune from among his contemporaries”.But he wants to be remembered as the Bheeshma Pitamaha of Indian politics for anyone who cares to pick his brains or experience. No wonder, currently, Pranab Mukherjee is reading a newly published book on Kautilya.- The writer is the editor of Bengali daily Ekdin. As a reporter, he extensively covered civil wars, elections and terrorism in India and Sri Lanka.