Speaking to Sonia Singh, in her book, 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes', the former President remains a master of political nuance. Speaking for the first time on a range of issues, he talks of his reaction when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him to inform him of the decision to grant him a Bharat Ratna:
"As a former President, Pranab Mukherjee has now stepped away from active political life but remains extremely relevant. In a political surprise, India's highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, was given to the lifetime Congressman by the Modi government, the announcement coming just a day before Republic Day in 2019. 'Prime Minister Modi called to ask for my acceptance at 6 p.m. on 25 January,' Pranab Mukherjee tells me of the rare honour. 'He told me the normal practice is for him to come personally and take my consent, but he was busy with the visit of the South African president on the eve of Republic Day. However, the Prime Minister wanted the Bharat Ratna to be announced on that same evening, for Republic Day, and he needed my assent before he could advise the President to issue the notification. "The President is waiting for my call with your approval," Mr Modi said to me. So, I gave my consent,' he says, smiling as he recalls how he told no one till the announcement came from Rashtrapati Bhavan. 'My daughter, Sharmishta, who lives with me, was very angry with me. She said - "You are awarded the Bharat Ratna and you are behaving as if nothing has happened, you didn't even tell me." I said, I was waiting for the formal notification. "What is a notification, why did you need to wait, surely if the Prime Minister of India calls you, there is no doubt," she shot back,' he laughs.
'What about the political messaging,' I ask, 'the fact that a BJP Prime Minister chose you?'
'I feel this is a larger recognition, not a recognition of an individual,' he replies. 'In fact, in this case, I entirely agree with Rahul Gandhi. I felt this was one of the best tweets that ever came complimenting me, when he tweeted shortly after the announcement - "Congratulations to Pranab Da on being awarded the Bharat Ratna. The Congress takes great pride in the fact that the immense contribution to public service and nation building of one of our own, has been recognized and honoured." This is the recognition of one of our man's contribution,' Pranab Mukherjee says. 'That means a recognition of a Congressman's contribution. I take it in that way.' A strong message of where his loyalties lie conveyed with the greatest subtlety by a political strategist who has often kept his own party guessing.
In the book, he also expresses his strong views on Hinduism, Indian secularism and his visit to the RSS. For the first time, he talks of why he accepted the invitation to speak at the RSS and his reason isn't one, the RSS will appreciate. Also, his response to a question on Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi is telling:
'The two Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, are often compared to each other. You've worked with one very closely and interacted with the other. Do you find any similarities?' I ask. 'They are more dissimilar than similar,' he replies. 'Indira Gandhi was secular to the last bone in her body. However, the one thing they share is political understanding. They have both visited Arunachal Pradesh twice as Prime Minister. Even though the state has only two seats, they did it because they have a national vision. They want to send a strong message to China. Their similarities end there.
However, I point out to him, the most significant political transition of our times has been not a change of government but the BJP replacing the Congress as the central axis of national politics. The other big transition in the larger political landscape has been the shift from secularism to Hinduism, with even the Congress today following the BJP in wearing a religious identity as a badge of honour. 'It's just temporary. India needs the Congress. Without the Congress we will be Balkanized. I am convinced this will not be a constant position,' Pranab Mukherjee responds emphatically. 'More importantly, Hinduism is the greatness, the vastness of this country. It is a way of life, and it is inclusive. It cannot, and must not, be brought into the competitive nature of politics. Doing so will sully it. Do we want to be Pakistan? In the West, the American President is sworn in with the Bible and in England, the monarch does the same while swearing in the prime minister, but in India, we use the Constitution. That is our holy book and secularism is the cornerstone of our great Republic,' he concludes.
Yet, the ex-President chose to go against what his party had publicly expressed, and go to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the very antithesis, many would argue, of the views he has just outlined. On 6 June 2018, Pranab Mukherjee's speech at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur was broadcast live by every television network. I was struck by the deftness with which he made a larger political point as he quoted Jawaharlal Nehru - the Sangh's bȇte noire - in their home ground with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat listening intently. And that he did in quintessential Pranab style. 'Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity. It was this nationalism that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru so vividly expressed in The Discovery of India, and I quote,' said Pranab Mukherjee in his speech. '"I am convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and other groups in India. That does not mean extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook, to which other matters are subordinated."' Pranab Mukherjee ended with, 'The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. This plurality of our society has come through assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation.' He smiles as he tells me, 'I wanted to go to the lion's den and show them where they are going wrong.' And perhaps a larger message that couldn't have been lost to both the BJP and the Congress...he may have retired from political life, but you can't take the politician out of Pranab Mukherjee.
Excerpted with permission of Penguin India from 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes' by Sonia Singh. Order your copy here.
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