FINANCE, foreign affairs, banking, commerce, industry, steel and mines, transport, defence and presenting the interim budget before Indians go to the polls in April — Pranab Mukherjee, the man for all seasons, has handled it all.
He is currently external affairs minister, acting finance minister and was the virtual caretaker prime minister, though not officially designated Number 2.
When it became clear that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would need surgery and a stand-by finance minister, many thought it would be Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, who was handling finance till last November.
But rather than take Chidambaram away from his full plate of domestic security, it was decided to saddle an overloaded Mukherjee with the additional task.
As finance minister, he presided over cabinet meetings way back in 1982, when just 47 — young for an Indian politician.
He was then rated as the world’s best finance minister in a survey of Euromoney magazine. His term was noted for India not drawing down the last US$1.1 billion (RM3.5 billion) installment of an International Monetary Fund loan. He chairs cabinet meetings at 74 as Manmohan recovers from heart surgery.
Besides the 100-odd GoMs (groups of ministers), he heads several inter-ministerial committees engaged in studying and decision-making in key areas ranging from telecoms to finance. The political grapevine has it that no big decision is taken without his nod.
After three years as defence minister, he moved to external affairs, which he had handled in 1995-96. But it was as finance minister that he created history.
When he presented the budget last Monday, few remembered that exactly 25 years ago, Pranab Babu (the honorific for a Bengali) or Dada (elder brother), as he is affectionately called by fellow politicians, was at the finance minister’s podium.
The Times of India took note of this even as it underscored the sea change India has undergone from the modest, socialist-oriented economy of the 1980s, governed by licences and quotas fixed by the government, to a resurgent one, albeit buffeted by the global economic slowdown.
It is another matter that there was more politics than economics in his budget, the way he hiked defence spending and the outlay on various poverty alleviation schemes.
It was an exercise that disappointed India Inc and the average citizen alike, who were looking for concessions. But a government running its last lap is not supposed to distribute largesse. To be fair to Mukherjee, he was erring on the right side. He would have been pilloried for exceeding his brief.
Politicians everywhere are good at making claims and promises, but it required Mukherjee’s conviction and credibility to assert in these grim times that India remains the world’s second fastest growing economy.
That it grew at nine per cent-plus for the last three years needed to be emphasised when the growth rate target has been whittled down to seven per cent.
For nearly four decades now, this pipe-chomping politician has maintained a low profile, living under the shadow, like all his party men, of the Gandhis — Indira, Rajiv and now Sonia. He recently spoke of the prospects of Rahul becoming premier.
Unlike some others — Sharad Parwar, the younger and more resourceful chieftain from Maharashtra state, comes to mind — he makes no bones about it.
Mukherjee is not new to juggling facts and figures and dealing with diverse responsibilities. He is forever busy giving pep talks to businessmen, parleying with visiting foreign dignitaries, or paying official visits himself, as he did for just 11 hectic hours to Bangladesh this month.
He has spearheaded the Indian campaign of piling pressure on Pakistan for its suspected role in the Mumbai mayhem. When not in government mode, he is doing political work: hobnobbing with politicians to stitch pre-election tie-ups.
It will not be long before he chairs the Congress Party’s committee to draft the election manifesto and sits through prolonged, closed-door deliberations to select candidates.
The short man with a ruddy complexion was briefly considered for the post of the largely ceremonial Indian presidency. But his name was subsequently dropped after his contribution in the cabinet was considered practically indispensable.
Among Mukherjee’s current legacy is the successful signing of the civilian nuclear agreement with the United States and then with the Nuclear Suppliers Group, allowing India to participate in civilian nuclear trade in spite of not having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
That is the public side of the man, a former political science teacher, lawyer, author and journalist, who has worked his way up, without a political pedigree to parade, through sheer hard work.
The private side is that of a doer and decision-maker; also a negotiator who can patiently tire out more gifted opponents. He is, indeed, a workaholic who daily changes sets of secretarial aides and stenographers, perhaps more often than he changes his crisp cotton clothes.
In a recent TV interview, Mukherjee said, matter-of-factly, that as a public man juggling so many different roles, he hardly had any time for his family.
“I have no personal life, even though I am a family man. Days pass, though living under the same roof, I hardly see my wife — this despite the fact that she is ill. I normally leave my work table after 1am. But before I go to sleep, I just touch her forehead to find her in deep sleep.”
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