Let’s face it: our former President Pranab Mukherjee used to be a real pain in the derriere during his long innings in various capacities. The man-who-would-be PM generally behaved like the surly bridesmaid who was never the bride. His sour-puss expression and rather unintelligible pronouncements didn’t win him too many popularity contests. He was seen as a shrewd, deep, marinated-in-politics individual, who made the Gandhis antsy. He was nonchalantly and arbitrarily overlooked in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which saw Rajiv Gandhi as PM, leaving Pranab sulking in the wings. Much later, it was Manmohan Singh who got the job, thanks to Sonia Gandhi listening to her ‘inner voice’.
Then came the presidential appointment, perhaps a consolation prize, and Pranab probably jumped at it. After all, being the President of India wasn’t exactly small cheese. The pomp! The grandeur! The title! The residence! The perks! After the embarrassment and disgrace generated by his predecessor, Pratibha Patil, Pranabda did not face much opposition. As a true-blue Congresswala, he was expected to stay loyal and play ball, in case there was a constitutional crisis and the Congress had to be bailed out by the President. His loyalty was not tested throughout his tenure (2012-2017). Which is just as well. Now, he has been rechristened Citizen Sane by grateful Bharatwaasis, yes, even those who had held their breaths wondering why on earth he had accepted the RSS invitation to address the troops in Nagpur. See? Nothing terrible happened. Pranabda didn’t reveal anything other than his wisdom. No saffron was detected no matter how hard the scrutiny. He sported just one ideological ‘colour’ — the colour of unity. Of dignity. Of sanity.
Those outside his charmed circle — all of us — can be forgiven for being sceptical. But when his daughter chose to go public with her reservations about this meeting, several eyebrows were raised. Mine merged into my forehead. I kept thinking, if my father had made up his mind to attend a function which made me queasy, would I have shared my anxiety with the public? Would I not have preferred a direct heart-to-heart with my dad? Not sure what Pranabda feels about his daughter’s indiscreet tweet (he is pretty inscrutable when it comes to displaying emotions), but most fathers in his place would have been disheartened, disappointed and baffled. Sharmistha Mukherjee is an ambitious Congresswoman. Understood. But when the urge to score brownie points with your party bosses supersedes your relationship with your father, it is time to question priorities. Considering her presence in politics is all thanks to her father, one assumes Pranabda remains her mentor/idol/adviser. But her tweet, urging him to cancel his trip, revealed something else: either she was being manipulated by a higher-up in the party, to show just how loyal she is, or she did it for the publicity. Earlier, loose talk had suggested she was all set to join the BJP (why shouldn’t the rival party milk the moment and exploit it for propaganda?). People were ready to believe the father-daughter had conspired to jump into the arms of Amit Shah et al, and Pranabda’s speech would finally disclose the real motivation for accepting the RSS invite. Phut! Nothing of the sort happened. If there were red faces around, Pranabda’s was certainly not one of them. Sharmistha’s definitely was.
No matter how strenuously analysts dissect the former President’s speech in search of some hint, some incriminating sentence, anything at all that could go against his publicly stated secular, balanced, practical beliefs, they will get zilch. As for Sharmistha’s fears about morphed photos distorting the visit — grow up, honey. It happens all the time! To everybody. Not just your beloved Baba. Nobody mistakes the real for the morphed. This is today’s reality. And hello! You could have easily communicated your reservations directly to daddy. Unless, of course, Ahmed Patel was making you his conduit, after his own tweet (“I did not expect this from Pranabda…”) fell flat.
As things stand, Pranab Mukherjee has emerged a hero. He took a risk (if one can call it that), and it paid off. Citizen Mukherjee spoke on behalf of 1.3 billion Indians when he defined “nation, nationalism and patriotism” in an easy-to-understand format, that made an important point most effectively. As for Randeep Singh Surjewala’s self-righteous remark, “He showed a mirror to the RSS”, which was designed as a facesaver, it generated nothing but widespread scorn and made his supporters look like whipped puppies.
It’s time for a seasoned statesman to take over the national dialogue so that it will once again be possible to have “informed and reasoned public engagements on all issues of national importance…” as Pranabda pointed out. Without question, it is the need of the hour. Even his daughter will agree.