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EXCLUSIVE: Pranab like you didn't know him before

Last updated on: July 24, 2012 10:28 IST

Pranab like you didn't know him before

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Sheela Bhatt

Pradyut Guha, Pranab Mukherjee's personal assistant since the last eight years and one of his most loyal disciples of more than 30 years, tells Sheela Bhatt all you wanted to know about India's new President

The journey of Pranab Mukherjee from 13, Talkatora Road to Rashtrapati Bhavan to become the 13th President of India has been steady and eventful. The man of destiny who could not become prime minister but ran the country as a de facto prime minister is an amazingly 'normal' person with normal Indian traits, likes and dislikes. After, he was nominated as presidential candidate of the Congress, hundreds of people called him to express their pleasure.

After he threw his hat in the race to become President he has certainly created a "feel good" factor amongst people. Even sadhus throng his home, endlessly, to bless him. The man, who was never been a mass leader, got the adulation of the masses during the last few weeks of campaigning.

Rediff.com met Pradyut Guha, Pranab Mukherjee's personal assistant since the last eight years and one of his most loyal disciples of more than 30 years, to know all one wanted to know about India's next President. Guha was a youth leader in Kolkata when he first met Pranabda in 1972. He has been involved in social and political activities since the last three decades. Guha says modestly, "I am a political colleague of Pranab Mukherjee." In the last eight years he has worked with him in three ministries -- defence, external affairs and finance.

When Pranab was finance minister in North Block, Guha's room was located on one side of his office and another Pranab confidante Omita Paul's office was on the other side.

In an exclusive interview with rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt, Guha regrets that his boss could not become prime minister but expressed immense joy to see him shifting to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Guha shared the known and unknown side of Pranab Mukherjee, the man of the moment, in his own words.

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Image: India's 13th President Pranab Mukherjee (Inset) Pradyut Guha, Mukherjee's personal assistant since the last eight years
Photographs: Press Information Bureau Photo

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The early encounter

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In 1977, when Indira Gandhi lost the General Election after the Emergency, Mukherjee became the first Congressman to back her and started canvassing for her.

Pranab babu started touring the country to gather Congress workers and convince them to not desert Indira Gandhi or the Congress in view of the defeat. He came to Kolkata and convened a workers' meeting at the Nizam's Palace. At that time Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Ashok Sen and Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi and many others had left the party. I was at the meeting. We were confused to see our leaders like Ray and Dasmunshi leaving the party. We were sentimentally attached to them.

But when Pranab described the real political situation and explained why all these things happened during the Emergency and described Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi's role in that, things got cleared. After that meeting we were convinced and never left the Congress.

I saw him as my leader. I thought of him as the front-ranking leader of India. Mukherjee has been so convincing to generations of Congress workers. I was impressed by his speech and have been loyal to him and the party since. It was the period of struggle for three years.

In 1980, the Congress returned to power and he became commerce minister. He became the 'number two' in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet. Do you know in 1980, Pranabda fought the election from Malda and lost? Then, Pranabda told us Indira Gandhi was very angry. She asked him, "Why did you contest the election, I had warned you to not to contest."

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Image: File photo of Pranab with late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
Photographs: Press Information Bureau Photo

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Pranab babu, the nationalist

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Pranabda, always, keeps the national angle in focus. He is not only for West Bengal. He is a national leader, in fact a global leader, as Mamata Banerjee said the other day.

The Congress is a 127-year-old party. Its district and block level leaders should also have the national angle in mind. Pranabda's father Kamada Kinkar was a freedom fighter and had been jailed by the British for ten years. He was the Birbhum district Congress president. People used to crowd his house in Mirati village.

Rajlakshmi, his mother, used to serve food to them. Policemen also frequently came home. His mother used to control the house. She was very homely and mentally very strong. Pranabda was very close to his mother and also feared her. She influenced Pranabda greatly.

He has grown up in that situation so he understands the Congress and rural life too. He still enjoys village life. Every month he goes to West Bengal. He goes to his old house. He went to school walking five kilometres one-way every day. In the rainy season, he used to keep his chappals and books on his head and swim in the river to reach school. Basically he is a man of rural India. His family of freedom fighters belongs to rural India. He understands rural West Bengal very well.

He understands the Congress better than anybody because he has seen the district level Congress so closely. When he was elected to the Rajya Sabha for the first time in 1969 he gave a speech on the finance bill. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi heard it. She was very impressed and called him. She asked him, "Who are you? Which party do you belonged to?" He said he is from the 'Bangla Congress'. She complimented him and asked him to "stay in touch" with her. Slowly he grew and became a minister. He has, always, told us that he is an Indian first. He can't favour a particular village, district or a state.

In all the ministries that he was heading he has kept the national interest in focus. The reason behind his success is that he is a nationalist. He is perfectly Indian. He will say I work for the Indian people.

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Image: File photo of Pranab taking part in the Durga Puja ceremony at his ancestral village
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty/Rediff.com

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Pranabda, not just a book-worm

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Pranab babu is a very friendly person to people in his life. He behaves like an elder brother to me, to some he is "uncle" and to many people he is quite like a fatherly figure.

Pranab has been playing the role of 'father' to the Congress since the last few years. Anybody who has faced problem comes to him. Workers come with problems of finance, admissions in schools and colleges and for medical expenses.

Pranabda's human side is fantastic. In the last 42 years, I have worked with many leaders. Pranabda is more than a politician. He is a perfect gentleman. He is quite like Rajiv Gandhi, who was a gentleman not just a politician. Pranabda is strong in decision-making but he is soft in dealing with people. It is not true that he is merely a bookworm. He reads a lot because he likes history. But, I told you he started his career from his village home in Mirati. He is not a pothy-pundit. He has studied in a village school, the college in a nearby town and then he came to Calcutta University.

He became the man pushing for development due to his own experiences. Once he said, "I became pro-development because when I was keeping my books on my head and swimming in the river to reach my school. I thought if I have an opportunity I will build a pucca road to school. I wished, then, how good it will be to ride the bicycle to go to school."

A lot of people say Pranab Mukherjee is a man of intellectual abilities, a studied man but he is not a mass leader. I too believed so till 1990. Then he fought the election from Jangipur in 2004 where the Congress has never won in recent times. It was a difficult seat. He won by 38,000 votes.

In fact, once, I had asked him, "Dada lots of people say you are not a mass leader." He got little angry. He said, "You don't know how many people I have helped, with how many people I have connections. I don't believe in publicity." He meets many people away from the camera, away from public gaze.

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Image: File photo of Pranab Mukherjee taking part in Durga Puja festivities at his ancestral home
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty/Rediff.com

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Pranabda and his temper

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Yes, he loses his temper too quickly but, he controls it within minutes. The issue is he is very justified in his anger. After the 2004 elections, he asked me to join his office, i.e. the ministry of defence in South Block. One day Congress MLA Moin-ul-Haq from Farakka constituency was called by the police at midnight. He was thrashed in the police station and put in the lock-up.

When I came to know about it in the morning, I was very angry. I used to look after his constituency. I called up the local police officer on duty. The police confirmed his arrest and gave few reasons. I said you can't arrest an MLA just like that. Then, I called the senior Superintendent of Police. He took care to transfer his junior for arresting the MLA.

I was very proud. I thought I took good care of the party leader. While sitting in his car, I narrated the incident and when I was proudly sharing the information he got angry.

He told me,"This is not the Youth Congress. This is the ministry of defence. You are not president of the Youth Congress. You are private secretary of Pranab Mukherjee." I was feeling sorry. I was shocked. I told Dada I have been helping people since the days when I was president of the Youth Congress. Dada again hollered at me.

He said, "I told you this is not the Youth Congress. This is the Government of India! You are in government. Before calling a government officer you must inquire. The policeman is a government servant. You should have asked what is the fault of that MLA. Why was he arrested? Was he drunk? Did he flout any law? Was he driving wrongly?" I had not inquired before calling the police officer so I apologised. Pranabda's anger was justified. I took his advice seriously and amended my work style.

He calls a person an "idiot" when he is angry or irritated with him. Idiot is his favourite expression! In anger, in love he will say idiot! His style of communicating is very much like a teacher. He is a good teacher. He was a teacher in his early life.

Pranab Mukherjee is not a politician, not a friend. To me he is my teacher. In the last 32 years of life with him I have learnt lots of things.

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Image: Pranab Mukherjee leaves after a meeting in New Delhi
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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One great regret

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Pranab Mukherjee will never say this but, I believe, he was deprived. Much earlier, he should have got the number one chair in the government.

He should have become prime minister of India. He is fit for any portfolio in the government. He is very smart. In five minutes, he can be shifted to the home ministry from the defence ministry. He will take five minutes to get a grasp of the home ministry. In 2004, when he became defence minister, he took a cup of tea and called the defence secretary.

If for a whole year he was thinking of the prime minister's chair but if he gets the President's job he will get a grip of it in an hour. Pranab can run any ministry. He is very sensitive. If he is hurt he will not speak out. He will not cry publicly. He broods inside. He never reacts quickly.

Once he reacted and he regretted. He told me he should have waited to talk to Rajiv Gandhi. He left the party for some time. He told me he should have waited before reacting. He said it was his mistake to leave the Congress and form a new party.

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Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

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Becoming President

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Pranabda's achievement (of becoming President) was overdue. He was second to Indira Gandhi. He was second to Rajiv Gandhi, he was number two in P V Narasimha Rao's government. He has been number two to Manmohan Singh. For how many years a leader, having all the qualifications, will remain in second position? Any political person will have the ambition to be on top at number one position. I am very satisfied to see my leader going to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

When in 2004, the Congress won and Pranab's name was in circulation for the PM's post. He came here in a special chartered flight from Jangipur.

At that time people were saying if Sonia Gandhi is not taking up the post of PM then Pranabda will be the PM. But,it was not done. Manmohan Singh was made PM.

Mukherjee digested (the decision) immediately.

Then, people said he will be the home minister. We started preparing for it. I was his election agent in Jangipur. I was very proud that he will be the home minister. But, when we saw the final list he was made the defence minister. I was very angry. I rushed to Dada. I said you were to become home minister. Dada said, "Will you take tea?" I said no. But, then both of us had tea. He stood up and told me "Call the defence secretary!"

In 15 minutes, he started functioning as the defence minister and he took a grip of the department.

However, you won't believe, that Pranab babu is in a little agony today. He doesn't want to leave his current home at 13, Talkatora Road. He loves the small home, a mango tree, and its small green lawn. He is already missing it.

He is missing Parliament and politics. Too much! He has not gone to see his new home. He said he will see it when he takes oath. Pranab babu has, already, started studying all about the presidential history, its functioning. He has a vast library at home. He uses the Parliament library to get new books. He never does any shopping but he buys books. On all occasions we gift him books.

He says once in Rashtrapati Bhavan he will write his memoirs. He is a nationalist person and he wants to give back to the nation more and more. He will be a successful President who will leave behind his legacy. I don't see any change in him as he is set to enter high office.

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Image: Pranab's new residence, the Rashtrapati Bhavan


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Dada has a sweet tooth

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Pranabda loves sweets. He is moderately diabetic but he likes sweets. In West Bengal which ever districts he travels into he is well-informed about the local sweets. As soon as our car starts he will start telling us which sweets are famous in which district and towns. He likes fried sweets. His favourite is ladykini (fried sweet made of curd and semolina).

He is non-vegetarian but these days he likes simple food and mostly takes soups and juices. He loves postho (poppy seeds, it is cooked with potatoes, normally) Dada is very religious. He is not a fanatic but he believes in rituals. Dada is a devout bhakta of Chandi mata (Ma Durga).

His daily routine is simple. He used to get up at 5 am but these days due to a hectic schedule he gets up at 6 am. He gets ready for his morning walk. He loves walking. It is his conviction. He walks, everyday, for an hour or little more. Then he does his exercise. He then reads his newspapers. He takes, over the two hours, some four cups of tea. He reads all the English newspapers carefully. Then he gets ready. After a shower, he unfailingly does his puja for some 40 minutes daily. He knows Sanskrit.

Sometimes his puja takes an hour and only after that he takes breakfast. He has always been so busy that he has never ever done any chores of his home. He is fit and fine. Due to puja, exercise and limited intake of food he is quite alright and his memory is as sharp as ever. It can be compared to a computer.

He can narrate every details of his life spent yesterday, day before yesterday, like that he can go up to ten to twenty years down memory lane. He remembers things easily. He never gets time to watch movies. He might have seen Uttam Kumar's movies in past. He doesn't have time to watch television. He likes the print media, more.

He is, sometimes, quite jovial. He changes his friend's names [nicknames]. He calls me Padda. Sometime he jokes. He never rests on Sunday. He takes little rest while in flight or when he is on tours. Everyday he sleeps with his book in his hand. His sister Annapurna is quite like his mother. His entertainment is talking to people, his family and friends.

There is no other entertainment for him. He keeps a cell phone but he doesn't talk on the phone for long. He gets his information from books. He speaks Bengali and English. He is very much Bengali in his dressing and small habits. He still calls his barber home. He loves wearing a dhoti. In the Rashtrapati Bhavan he will wear the dhoti. I can't imagine Pranab Mukherjee without his dhoti.

We Bengalis may miss meat on regular days but on Sunday we love eating meat with the family. Pranbada, also, spends Sunday afternoon with his family over meat curry. If he is in Kolkata, he will surely get his meat curry.

Pranabda never eats outside. He eats, mostly, home food and simple food. His home is open to people till midnight. He reads his files in the office and at home around midnight, once the visitors leave. His favourite Bengali authors are Tarashanker Bandopadhyaya, Sharat Babu and Bankim Chandra. He likes Rabindra sangeet. His best friends are his books. He is not computer-friendly and does not surf the net.

His mentor was Indira Gandhi. His philosophy is the Indian people. He loves his children. His two sons keep a distance from him because they fear him a bit but his daughter is very close to him. He deeply loves his daughter Sharmistha whom he lovingly calls munni.

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