Do I wish to see Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan? Most definitely I do.
First of all, it will be the crowning glory of a long and distinguished career – chequered, yes, but most of it at the very highest echelons of government. He is truly one man who’s been there and done it all. Born in a politically involved but humble family in a remote village in one of the most backward districts of Bengal and beginning his career as a government clerk, he was already being called the second most powerful person in India at the start of the 1980s, before I went to college, when he was Indira Gandhi’s finance minister and winning accolades from all over the world; now I am pushing fifty, and he is still right there (actually was till June 26, 2012), commanding (at least grudging-) respect across the political spectrum as both an astute, suave fixer and a very able strategist cum administrator. As one trained in economics and one who has followed him on TV and the papers without a break for nearly thirty years, I can vouch that his grasp of economic affairs national and global is little short of legendary; the word encyclopedic can be used to describe his tip-of-the-fingers knowledge with total aptness. He has been the UPA government’s man for all seasons for nearly a decade now; there have been few serious problems under the scanner of either the Union Cabinet or the Congress Working Committee which he has not been asked to look into personally when all else had failed. The man’s sheer appetite for work takes my breath away – he travels more in a month, and not for fun, than I have travelled in the last ten years. And while looking after the highest affairs of state 24/7, he still somehow finds time to look after his extended family and its gods, and to read good books (among a thousand feathers in his cap, he is the current President of the Nikkhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan). And – knowing how much muck one must wade through if one merely becomes the head of a neighbourhood puja committee or party unit in this country – I find it well nigh unbelievable how he has kept his nose more or less clean all through these decades, to the extent that accusations of corruption have never risen beyond rare and stray murmurs, and not one serious case has ever been brought to court against him, leave alone won, though he must have made a thousand enemies among the highest and mightiest in the land and beyond, apart from making millions just plain jealous: any person who wields such enormous power has to. By now we know and he knows that the ultimate prize will forever elude him – the Gandhi family will never let him be prime minister – and he’s getting a bit long in the tooth anyway; 77 is pretty old even for a politician! So why not fade out in a blaze of glory, occupying what is the highest, even if almost purely ornamental office in the land? If you call that being ‘kicked upstairs’, how much sweeter can it get? (charming thought: there was a time when Manmohan Singh, as governor of the Reserve Bank, rose before him and called him ‘Sir’, he being finance minister and close confidant of the PM; it couldn’t have been easy to swallow his pride and tolerate the role reversal with him in the FM’s seat and Singh in the PM’s, and so it would be nice again to have Singh-ji rise for him in the dusk of his career…).
Secondly, if the Prez’s job is all about symbolism and tokenism too, why not a Bengali? We have had Muslim and Sikh and Dalit and woman and men from down south more than once; nothing wrong in saying it’s our turn now. Nothing wrong in claiming something for Bengali pride, is there? We have precious little to crow about anyway. Not since Subhas Bose left the stage have we had a fighting chance of being at the helm of this country; not since Jyoti Basu (and he was a very old man by then) has any Bengali in independent India come close to the hot seat in South Block. So at least let’s settle for the President’s post, for now? And if it’s going to be a Bengali, how many candidates more eligible than Pranab Mukherjee can we think of putting up, all things considered?
Finally, our Constitution, as some people have demonstrated (T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner, to name just one), has strange things hidden away in its voluminous bulk, obscure laws and bye-laws and grey areas which a wily, determined and vastly experienced man can take advantage of to make a substantial something out of what has hitherto been regarded as a powerless and/or ornamental post. Who better than Mr. Mukherjee to do that with the office of the President, so that the next PM and cabinet may find out, either with alarm or delight, that they have an assertive and activist head of state to reckon with?
No, Mr. Mukherjee is not even a distant relative, I have never met him personally, and I didn’t take part in the yagna they arranged in his native village to facilitate his accession. But I shall be glad to see him raising the flag next Republic Day. India could do worse.