Pranabda, the man with a remarkable memory

Pranabda, the man with a remarkable memory

Journalists and politicians alike experienced his warmth and sometimes, anger.

It was well known to all journalists that if one planned to interview Pranab Mukherjee, one should be very precise about dates. Because Mukherjee had a memory that could not be countered, and it would upset him if you got the dates wrong. What was left unsaid was what would happen if he did get upset, which I found out the first time I sat down to do a one-on-one television interview with him when he was External Affairs Minister. As it happened, I did get my dates wrong while asking him a question about India’s Tibet policy. Not very wrong, but enough to see his colour and tone change. “Don’t assume we are fools, Madam,” he said, controlling his temper just enough to let me complete the interview, albeit with my heart in my mouth. I later asked a bureaucrat in his office how he had such a good memory, and whether he was always right. The bureaucrat smiled and said, “Since no one has a better memory, we have never found out!”

Mukherjee’s second stint as External Affairs Minister was from 2006 to 2009. While the period was comparatively short, it was one of the most eventful times in Indian foreign policy. That period included the India-U.S. nuclear deal, a number of international summits hosted here, a flurry of engagements in the SAARC region, India-Pakistan talks, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and then India’s international fight against cross-border terrorism.

It was during the 26/11 attacks that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi received a dose of Mukherjee’s temper we had all been taught to be wary of. On November 26, 2008, he was in Delhi for bilateral talks with his counterpart. After the terrorists struck, it was expected that Mr. Qureshi would head back immediately, or at least give some explanation of Pakistan’s role in the attack, clearly orchestrated from its soil. Instead, Mr. Qureshi stayed back to address the Women’s Press Corps the next day, where many of us were present. In the middle of his talk, he received a call and stepped away. Years later, in his memoir, Mukherjee wrote about what he had said. “Mr. Minister, no purpose will be served by your continuing to stay in India,” he began. Soon after, Mr. Qureshi returned to Islamabad, on a special Pakistan Air Force aircraft sent for him, his face ashen.

For the large part, however, Pranabda had a way of charming all with his sense of humour. Each of his bilateral interlocutors were left in awe of his knowledge of history. During a visit to Taxila in Pakistan, he had attending museum historians agog as he recounted the ancient site’s glorious history. He ran an open house for journalists throughout, and always had time for a chat during his visits abroad. As President, he was famous for increasing the number of journalists invited to all official events, and did away with the officious ropes that used to segregate journalists from other guests (the ropes have returned since then).

Being part of his entourage one heard stories of his softness in personal ties as well. His soft corner for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who had been looked after in Delhi by the Mukherjees after her father’s assassination in 1975, was well known. He also had a good relationship with the Bhutanese royalty and once presented the former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk with a scarf knitted by his wife. Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri also recalled how touched he was that Pranabda had taken pains to research about his grandfather, who was the president of the Punjab Provincial Congress party pre-Partition.

My last official trip with him was when he was President. I travelled with him to Moscow in 2015 to join the 70th Victory Day celebrations. The Western world had boycotted the event, due to Russian actions in Crimea, and the impact of India’s gesture was something Mukherjee saw first-hand, as his motorcade was stopped by large crowds of Russians who expressed their happiness and gratitude. He didn’t mind the delay. On the flight home, he spoke at length about Indian foreign policy’s traditional moorings. Even when I asked a contentious question about India’s policy towards the Army’s role in the World Wars, he smiled before beginning, “You clearly don’t know your history, Madam…”

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