Jyoti Basu, the 95-year-old communist, has lost touch with many of his comrades. But this morning the former chief minister of West Bengal did not forget to call his favourite Congressman to say, "Happy Birthday!"
The birthday boy, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, was happy for another reason; data released yesterday showed 10.3 per cent growth in industrial production. "The good news of the day is not that it is my birthday, but that IIP (Index of Industrial Production) is 10.3 percent. I am really very happy as this shows that the industrial sector is picking up. I hope the GDP (gross domestic product) for the next quarter is in line with the second quarter," he said.
As Mukherjee turned 75 today, the day began as just another day in Parliament. "People celebrate my birthday. They send me wishes. I am grateful to them, although I don't like celebrating my birthday," he said.
His dislike meant little to Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee today. She may not have exchanged a word with Mukherjee in nearly two months, but on Friday she arrived in the finance minister's room in Parliament with a huge cream cake, a bouquet of (artificial) flowers and her team of members of Parliament.
As Mukherjee cut the cake. Banerjee led her Trinamool team in singing "Happy Birthday, Pranabda". Since there was no spoon, she scooped up a piece of the cake on the edge of the knife and placed it inside Mukherjee's mouth. Someone tried to warn her that the finance minister had high blood sugar. But Banerjee would have none of it. "Nothing will happen today," she said. "Pranabda, you eat the cake."
Squeezing out an hour from his schedule, Mukherjee indulged himself at an exclusive lunch hosted by Tarun Das, the former head of Confederation of Indian Industry, at Le Meridian hotel in New Delhi -- a stone's throw from Parliament. Flanked by top bureaucrats (Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, Home Secretary G K Pillai and others), banker Deepak Parekh and former foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon (who Mukherjee is fond of), the finance minister smilingly cut another cake and said he was overwhelmed.
"Seventy-five is old by any standard," continued the man who regularly has dinner after 1 AM and sleeps for barely six hours. "I have to be more careful in my work and food habits. Shonkor (Shiv Shankar Menon) used to tell me regularly that I should go on a holiday but I have been unable to take one."
When Das described him as "the shortest but tallest leader", Mukherjee laughed, and said: "I am still a student. I am still learning every day. I don't think I can ever stop learning. I kept on working and didn't realise that I have reached 75."
When he saw Trinamool's Kakoli Ghoshdastidar, Mukherjee said: "Your father used to be my officer when I was finance minister earlier (in the 1980s). And today you are my colleague in Parliament."
Speaker Meira Kumar wished him well on behalf of the Lok Sabha. R Sambasiva Rao, Lok Sabha MP, gave him prasad from Tirupati. Two ministers -- Selja and Sushil Kumar Shinde -- drove to his residence at Talkatora Road in the morning to wish him. But no one could beat Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance -- she had called the previous night.
Through the day, Mukherjee remained busy, handling Supplementary Demand for Grants, meeting the agitating Andhra Pradesh MPs along with Home Minister P Chidambaram, attending the International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage conference, and a few other engagements, before leaving for Kolkata to meet wife Suvra.Today was like any other day, except that Mukherjee did not lose his temper even once.