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Today I want to share some secrets about Pranab Mukherjee’s presidential years with you. Over the years, there had been speculations by many about the relationship between Pranab Mukherjee and Narendra Modi as President and Prime Minister, Both came from differing ideological backgrounds and from different political parties.
Mukherjee has written extensively about Modi in his memoir “The Presidential Years 2012-2017”which he completed before his death last year. In his book, Mukherjee has touched upon his relationship with Modi in glowingly warm terms.
It is, therefore, significant when a leader like Pranab Mukherjee gives his opinion about Narendra Modi. He was watching the working of Modi government from close vantage position as President of the republic. The President, as head of state, gets important feedbacks about the government of the day. Mukherjee was very much aware about many secrets relating to Modi.
Today I want to share with you what Mukherjee thought about Modi as a leader and the policies that he pursued, what he, as President, thought of Modi government’s economic and foreign policies.
Pranab Mukherjee had a vast experience as External Affairs Minister and Finance Minister before he became President. During his 44-year-long stint in active politics, he witnessed a variety of colours in affairs of state. That is why when Mukherjee writes on topics relating to Modi, every word counts.
I knew Pranab Da very closely. I interacted with him frequently and was fortunate enough to gain significant insights into the working of the government. He had an elephantine memory, was ‘super intelligent’ and his observations were very much deep and incisive. Whatever he has written in his memoir about Narendra Modi is meaningful, in today’s context.
When Modi led his party to a clear majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he called on President Mukherjee. Pranab Da writes: “I congratulated Modi, who requested for some time to speak with me. Using a newspaper clipping, that had reported on my earlier speech hoping for a politically stable mandate, he asserted that he had achieved the objective of a clear majority that I had envisaged. Thereafter, he requested for a week’s time before the swearing-in ceremony. I was surprised at his requested. He insisted that he needed time to address the issue of his successor in his home state, Gujarat.”
Mukherjee wrote he was not sure whether BJP would get a massive mandate in the 2014 elections but was impressed on seeing the meticulous planning and hard work put in by Modi. He wrote: “Only Piyush Goyal, the then national treasurer of the party and now a cabinet minister, was confident that the BJP would get no less than 265 seats, and that the number could go up to 280. I didn’t and still don’t know the reasons for his optimism. However, I took him seriously when he gave me Modi’s detailed electioneering schedule, which was not only gruelling but also painstaking.”
Pranab Mukherjee once told me he was quite impressed with Narendra Modi’s zeal for hard work. He told me, Modi has already set a high bar for future Prime Ministers by putting in work as PM for 16 to 18 hours every day. He said, any future Prime Minister’s work will now be compared with Modi’s and it will be a really tough job.
In his memoir, Mukherjee writes how Modi before being sworn in as Prime Minister in 2014 broached the idea of inviting heads of state and governments of SAARC countries to the oath taking ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Mukherjee wrote: “When Narendra Modi took over as PM, he had absolutely no experience in foreign affairs. As the CM of Gujarat, he had visited some countries, but those visits were limited to engaging for the good of his state, and had little to do with domestic or global foreign policies. Foreign policy was, therefore, a truly uncharted territory for him. But he did what no PM had attempted before: invite the heads of government/state of SAARC nations to his oath-taking ceremony in 2014—and this included Pakistan’s then PM, Nawaz Sharif.
“His out-of-the-box initiative took several foreign policy veterans by surprise. As PM-designate, when Modi informed me of his decision, while the date of the oath-taking ceremony was fixed for 26 May 2014, I welcomed the move and advised him to ensure that all necessary security arrangements were in place for the high-profile foreign dignitaries who would visit the country on the occasion…I also believe that he has managed to grasp the nuances of foreign policy quickly.”
I completely agree with Pranab Mukherjee’s observations. During my interview with Prime Minister Modi during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections for ‘Salaam India’ show on India TV, Modi had explained in detail how he always thought out-of-the-box when meeting with heads of states of other countries.
Modi had said in his interview that for decades he had been watching Indian prime ministers shaking hands meekly with foreign leaders. At that time, he had made up his mind that he would change all that if he ever became PM and meet foreign statesmen on an even keel and speak to them eye to eye. Modi also revealed how US President Donald Trump took him on a tour inside the White House and spoke to him extensively about US history. Modi disclosed how his late night meeting on arrival in Moscow, with Russian President Vladimir Putin stretched beyond midnight.
What makes Modi a league apart from other prime ministers, has been aptly described by Pranab Mukherjee in his memoir. In his book, Mukherjee noted the good practices initiated by Modi, such as communication from the Prime Minister before every foreign visit of the President, in which core points of bilateral relations were mentioned. “It was a practice initiated by PM Modi”.
These are words of praises for Modi from a politician like Pranab Mukherjee who spent almost his entire career in the Congress. These words, therefore, acquire much significance, if one contrasts them with the mindless anti-Modi monologues that we see almost on a daily basis on social media nowadays from Congress leaders.
The experienced statesman that he was, Pranab Mukherjee, made a telling comparison between Dr Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi as Prime Ministers.
When comparing Modi with Dr Manmohan Singh, who was named by Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister and “essentially an economist”, Mukherjee writes: “Modi, on the other hand, became Prime Minister through popular choice after leading the BJP to a historic victory in 2014. He is a politician to the core and had been named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate as the party went into campaign mode. He was then Gujarat’s CM and had built an image that seemed to click with the masses. He has earned and achieved the prime ministership.”
I have seen Pranab Da from close quarters. He was the main trouble shooter for the Congress party during its 10-year-long UPA rule. Pranab Da was a human being par excellence. He always used to care for others. I remember once Narendra Modi became quite emotional, when he was narrating what he had learnt from Pranab Da. Modi was, at that time, new in Delhi, and for him Pranab Da was a father figure, who took care of him.
I have heard from Pranab Da much more than what he has written and revealed in his memoir. Today at a time when the level of politics is at a low ebb, I feel it necessary to tell whatever I have learnt from Pranab Da. In politics today, I find that opposition leaders are opposing only for the sake of opposition. There are Congress leaders who believe that since they are in the opposition, they must oppose each and every measure taken by Modi government.
Whether it is the launch of Central Vista project, or approval given to an indigenous Covid vaccine, or following the tradition of holding annual Republic Day parade, some opposition leaders think they must oppose the government on such issues. They will even oppose farm policies or even the GST, framed by the Congress when it was in power, only because they are being implemented by Modi.
One should learn the art of compromise from Pranab Da’s memoir, and should view national interest as supreme. The relationship between Pranab Da and Modi underlines the hoary Indian tradition of according respect to the one who possesses knowledge. This is the lesson people in politics must learn from Pranab Babu.