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Pranab cautious to celebrate

Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi | May 23, 2004 00:26 IST

After Dr Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee was the observed of all observers at the swearing-in ceremony on Saturday evening.

The senior Congress leader and MP from Jangipur in West Bengal was the second member of the incoming Council of Ministers to accept the oath of office and secrecy, after Dr Singh himself.

This seemed to signal that Pranabda, as he is referred to more familiarly, would be number two in the Cabinet, and that he would likely get the coveted home portfolio.

The man seemed strangely reluctant to accept the accolades, and the fact of his elevation -- a reluctance that indicated that the events of October 31, 1984 still weighed heavy on his mind.

On that day, then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. 'I am now number two,' Mukherjee, then finance minister,  declared to the media shortly thereafter. That statement backfired on him as the new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, grew  suspicious of him. Eventually isolated, Mukherjee broke away to form a new party, a party that went nowhere and whose name he has even forgotten, and returned to the parent party soon enough.

Two decades later, the senior leader appeared to have learnt the danger of seeming too ambitious, too openly, too soon. He was reticent as he returned from Rashtrapati Bhavan, after the swearing-in, to his Talkatora Road bungalow.

"No bytes now," he said curtly, when asked by this correspondent for his reaction. "Let the portfolios be announced first."

Supporters bearing bouquets and sweets greeted a tired Pranabda. Many touched his feet, he clasped the hands of all who came up to congratulate him. "Sub ko mithai khilao" (Give everybody sweets), he told an aide. His personal assistant, the affable M K Mukherjee, promptly brought out packets of sweets for distribution.

One of the first to congratulate him was the Congress MP from Berhampore in West Bengal, Adhir Mukherjee, who is seen by his constituents as something of a Robin Hood. Close behind was Syed Sibte Razi, minister of state for home in the P V Narasimha Rao government.

In the more relaxed environment of his home, Mukherjee decided to respond to a few questions. Very few questions, he said, pointing out that it was getting late.

Would he be celebrating tonight?

"I was a minister in the seventies, eighties and nineties -- this is nothing new. For 15 years I have been part of the government, I am one of the oldest hands. The job of a minister is not to celebrate, it is to deliver the goods for the people of the country."

Surely the fact that he was the second member of the Cabinet to be sworn in meant something?

"I told you, I am an old hand, all this is nothing new to me. We are happy that our party is back in power, but there is nothing to celebrate. The Congress had the people's mandate to administer this country for 45 years. Now, the people have again renewed their mandate and we are thankful and grateful to them."

And what was his vision of the newly installed government?

"Our aim is to provide good governance in all its aspects. The people have given us their mandate so we have our tasks cut out. Don't ask me right now to go into details. Suffice it to say that we will strengthen the country's secular platform, help and boost agricultural and industrial growth, especially farmers, and put an end to the communal agenda. Beyond that, you will have to wait and watch."

"I am tired. I think you are too. Let us meet another day," he said, and walked off to join his relatives and friends.

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