After spending nearly four decades in government, Pranab Mukherjee says he’s had enough.The last thing Pranab Mukherjee does every night is to write down the day’s events in a diary that has become the first draft of narrative history. The cherubic Mukherjee calls it “history from a personal angle”. The,After spending nearly four decades in government, Pranab Mukherjee says he’s had enough.The last thing Pranab Mukherjee does every night is to write down the day’s events in a diary that has become the first draft of narrative history. The cherubic Mukherjee calls it “history from a personal angle”. The claim is justified, because Mukherjee is the one personality who has initiated or supervised the course of crucial events since the era of Indira Gandhi. After working with four Congress PMs, he has taken a decision. He will not serve a fifth, Rahul Gandhi.There are no secrets in Delhi. Rahul has been officially nominated the heir by Manmohan Singh, who is ready to step down at five minutes’ notice, if and when it comes. Equally obviously, Mukherjee feels he has been denied the dream job of being the prime minister twice, in 1984 after Indira’s assassination and in 2004, when Manmohan was chosen by Sonia Gandhi. She did not trust Mukherjee and later denied him even the consolation prize of the President of India. He is indispensable in every role, except that of the prime minister.Speaking exclusively to INDIA TODAY, when asked whether he would join Rahul’s cabinet, Mukherjee exclaimed, “My goodness, what would be my age? I am already 75. There is a limit beyond which you cannot go.” He then added significantly, “Rather, I have overstayed my wicket.” Why would the only Cabinet minister today who can trace his lineage back to Indira’s Cabinet (Ghulam Nabi Azad made it only to minister of state in 1982) opt out of her grandson’s Government? When Indira became prime minister in 1966, Morarji Desai, who had lost out, joined her Cabinet. Arjun Singh felt aggrieved when P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister, but took the ministerial oath.advertisementIn a party of yes-men, Mukherjee is the first to say no.Mukherjee feels he has been denied the dream job of being the prime minister twice. Sonia denied him the consolation prize of President of India as well. He is indispensable in every role, except as PM. He was not included in the Rajiv Gandhi government after the December 1984 elections though he remained finance minister until then. He had been punished, according to Congress folklore, for daring to suggest that as senior minister, he should be the prime minister in the transitory government. The shock persuaded Mukherjee to float his own party which flopped. He was taken back only in 1989. But Mukherjee claims there is no ill-will with the Gandhis. He says, “There is no trust deficit and no deficit of acceptability” with Sonia. As for Rajiv, he quotes a 1991 interview that the late prime minister gave INDIA TODAY, where he had said, “Many things said about Pranab, I found were not true.” Mukherjee perhaps feels he has outlived his utility under Sonia’s dispensation. Or maybe he is just fed up of playing the best man to successive Congress prime ministers.The astute Mukherjee knows it’s better to walk off the stage than to be reduced to a political farce called Arjun Singh. The average age of the current cabinet is 66 years with the earnest Dayanidhi Maran as the youngest at 43. Of the 27 Congress Cabinet ministers (including the prime minister), 10 are in their 70s. It is unlikely that Rahul, with youth as his calling card, would opt for this ’70s show. He would not have a 74-year-old sports minister and a 78-year-old foreign minister. It would be interesting to see who would play Mukherjee in the Rahul era-the enigmatic Digvijaya Singh or the pragmatic P. Chidambaram.As ever, he puts it best: “I am comfortable at the height where destiny has put me.” At 5 ft 3 inches, he is not the shortest man in the Cabinet. Politically, he is the tallest. But though Sonia respects his vision, she simply does not trust his ambition. She used a lame excuse, that he was “too important” to be spared from the Government and then offered Mukherjee a Padma Vibhushan as a corny compensation. “I personally believe that the office of the President of India is not to be sought. It is to be offered,” says Mukherjee. It is an office that is once again coming up for offer in 2012. But Mukherjee is not issuing any RSVPs. The powers who did not even make him a deputy prime minister for a fortnight when Manmohan had his heart bypass in January 2009 are hardly likely to oblige. Yet Mukherjee says he is a “satisfied man”.This article appeared in the India Today magazine dated October 25, 2010. Subscribe to the print copy or read it on Zinio.advertisementHe does get to play prime minister for brief spells, when Manmohan is out of town but there is too much uncertainty between de facto and de jure. He does all the heavy lifting, whether it is to push the Nuclear Liability Bill through or shepherding the Women’s Reservation Bill. He heads 12 EGoMs and another dozen GoMs on topics as diverse as food security to caste census. Manmohan even postponed a Cabinet meet once as Mukherjee was delayed by the visiting Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the Bangladesh prime minister.The challenge for Rahul’s Cabinet will be the governance gap, and the experience spine that keeps an administration stable. Mukherjee would have been the perfect tutor.As finance minister, he doesn’t just do the country’s arithmetic, but also solves UPA’s algebra-soothing egos and sometimes losing his temper as he did with the temperamental Mamata Banerjee when she came up with a last-minute list of 24 projects to be announced in the Railway Budget. The girlish Banerjee complained that even her parents had not scolded her as much. Another ally, A. Raja was unceremoniously asked to leave an EGoM meet on fuel prices as he was not a member. Raja had accompanied M.K. Azhagiri as an interpreter. Mukherjee said, “If Azhagiri needs an interpreter for English, we’ll provide him one.” At another meeting, Maran was summarily ticked off when he wanted to know if the figure 13,420 next to the ministry of communications was an allocation in crores to his party rival. “No,” said an exasperated Mukherjee, “that is the number of post offices in the country.” He has the stature to snub.It’s not just the nuts and bolts, sometimes he puts the entire paradigm in perspective. During the 2009 debate in parliament after the prime minister’s Sharm el-Sheikh faux pas, Manmohan found, to his horror, that a reluctant Congress had lined up a lightweight team of speakers for his defence. He asked Mukherjee to speak at the last minute and lend gravitas to his case. The nitty gritty of US President Barack Obama’s visit was sorted out by Mukherjee during his recent visit to Washington and not the external affairs minister. Recently, the indefatigable Mukherjee landed in New Delhi after a 16-hour trip and went straight to a core committee meeting at the prime minister’s residence to discuss the Karnataka crisis.However, there is one break that he allows himself-a visit to his native village, Kirnahar in West Bengal during the Pujas where he recites the shlokas of the Chandi Paath himself. He joked with Sonia and Manmohan, “Please put all crises on hold till the Pujas are over!” With his perennially red cheeks and mischievous smile, Mukherjee is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the coalition Star Wars. Yet his name is deliberately kept out of the credit ratings.He got the finance ministry because he wanted it, not because the leadership wanted him there. There was no way the Congress president could deny him this tryst with his own legacy. As it transpires, the job was an excellent political fit. The man who steered Indira’s social spend in the ’80s was a perfect link to reinforce the party’s relationship with the aam aadmi. Mukherjee’s legacy will be fortuitous for any prime minister. Recently, he was judged the Best Finance Minister for Asia by Emerging Markets, a part of Euromoney Institutional Investor. It’s a qualified pat on the back for a man who was judged the best finance minister in the world by Euromoney in 1984. The man, who has spent 37 years in government, jokes that he can never be the prime minister of this country as he is not fluent in Hindi. Mukherjee remembers every little trivia and keeps the memorabilia. He gave up smoking in 1993 but still has the three pipes Indira got him.advertisementThe challenge for the Rahul Cabinet is not getting the job. That, in Congress culture, is a given fact. The problem is the governance gap, and the experience spine that keeps an administration stable until the (comparative) youngsters have been honed into position. Manmohan is already talking about lowering the average age of his Council of Ministers to taper it to Rahul’s demographics. A prime minister has to understand political nuances as much as governance. This had been Rajiv’s undoing. He did not quite get the political culture of even the Congress, and repeatedly stubbed his toe until gangrene set in. Sonia was an eye-witness to this phenomenon.Mukherjee’s departure will bring to a close the Indira era. Coincidentally the next set of “seniors” will be Rajiv Gandhi’s contemporaries. Can the likes of Chidambaram, Digvijaya, Azad and Kamal Nath replace the wisdom and political savvy of a Pranab Mukherjee, Hansraj Bhardwaj or an Arjun Singh? They were men who knew how to fix the plumbing simply because they were around when most of the pipes were laid. There is an irony here as well. Rahul has opted for his grandmother’s brand of socialist politics, instead of his father’s liberal economics. But to help him do this, he has to depend on his father’s team. So far, the young prime minister-in-waiting has steered clear of the halls of governance, except when he goes visiting to plead for an extension for MNREGA. That is not gathering experience but collecting photo-ops. Government is not a studio, and pictures are not policy.Pranab Mukherjee would have been the perfect tutor in the transition phase. But the perennial Bengali Master has had enough of school.This article appeared in the India Today magazine dated October 25, 2010. Subscribe to the print copy or read it on Zinio.