A Fellow Finance Minister Remembers Pranab Mukherjee
Pranab Mukherjee was the President of India from 2012 to 2017 and a union finance minister from 2009 to 2012. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

A Fellow Finance Minister Remembers Pranab Mukherjee

BloombergQuintOpinion

As narrated to BloombergQuint.

Pranab Mukherjee was one of the tallest political leaders of his generation in India. I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity of knowing him rather well, at a personal level. My last interaction with him was about a year ago when I went to invite him to launch my autobiography ‘Relentless’. Meeting him was always a pleasure and I think that whenever he met me, it was also a pleasant experience for him. So, he was very happy when I went to invite him to come to the book launch function. He not only agreed readily and came to the function, but he said very nice things about me at that event.

The 1991 Crisis, And A Regret

I particularly recall the fact, which I had mentioned in my autobiography, that way back in 1991, when I was the Finance Minister of the Chandra Shekhar government, I happened to met Rajiv Gandhi at a function and I knew that the Congress party [which extended outside support to the government] had certain reservations about the presentation of the budget. So, I said to Rajiv Gandhi, “if you have any reservations, then who should I talk to in your party?” He immediately named Pranab Mukherjee. I invited Pranab Mukherjee to lunch at my place and during that, we discussed the then prevailing economic situation of the country. Clearly, while I could not take him into confidence with regard to the various budgetary measures that I was planning, we had an overall discussion on the economic situation and what could be the best course of action. It was a very pleasant and friendly conversation and I was totally convinced that Pranab Mukherjee had gone away convinced about whatever I had told him. Therefore, I was very surprised when Rajiv Gandhi went to President Venkataraman and told him that the budget should not be presented. As you know this is history that the Congress prevented me from presenting the full budget of 1991. I had to satisfy myself by just presenting an interim budget.

In that book release function last year, Pranab Mukherjee said in his speech that he felt guilty about it even today because they prevented me from presenting the budget that Manmohan Singh presented later that year. It was a completely unexpected admission that he made at that function.
Then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and Former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee discuss election results and the economic crisis, in the DD studios in June 1991. (Image from Prasar Bharati Central Archives)
Then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and Former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee discuss election results and the economic crisis, in the DD studios in June 1991. (Image from Prasar Bharati Central Archives)

Politician Pranab, Bureaucrat Sinha

I narrowly missed being his private secretary as an IAS officer, when he was Minister of State for Finance. I remember that somebody had recommended by name to him and I went to see him. For some reason, it could not work out. Little did I realise then that someday we would be colleagues in the political life of India.

I recall the time when he had briefly left the Congress and joined some new formation along with a gentleman called Mahapatra of Odisha. There was a meeting of political leaders including Chandra Shekharji in Mahapatra’s house in Lodhi Estate. Pranab Mukherjee was there as well, and after the discussion, Chandra Shekhar asked me to prepare a record note of discussions, so I prepared that and brought it back. Everyone was happy with that and approved it. Pranab Mukherjee then made a remark that I have not forgotten. He said, “this is the strength of Indian bureaucracy, they are very good at preparing notes and minutes of meetings.”

Across The Aisle In Parliament

In Parliament, we were aamne-saamne and I was sitting across the aisle. There was one occasion in 2009 during the 14th Lok Sabha when he suddenly lost his temper. Naturally, the opposition was in no mood to put up with it. A ruckus was raised by the BJP members and the house had to be adjourned. Then, Pranab Mukherjee walked across the aisle to me because I was still sitting in the house, and he said, “did I make a mistake?” So I said, “well in a way you did, because you should not have lost your temper. He asked, “what should I do?” I said, “when the house reassembles, you regret losing your temper, and I think that will bring peace to the house.” He accepted this advice and as soon as the house reassembled he made that statement, and then everybody was calmed and the business of the house could proceed as before.

At the time, he was also the main troubleshooter of the Manmohan Singh government. There were occasions when there was an economic issue to be discussed and my own party people would not invite me to that discussion with Pranab Mukherjee. But Pranab Mukherjee would call me separately and say “Yashwantji you have to attend this meeting.” My own leaders in the two houses were often surprised to see me in that meeting because they had not asked me to join them. I had to tell them that I was invited by the minister.

Then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, at Parliament in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 26, 2010. (Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg)
Then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, at Parliament in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 26, 2010. (Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg)

I remember the occasion when we were having a discussion on the Companies Bill. The Standing Committee on Finance which I headed examined it in detail and had submitted a report. Then, a new Bill based partly on the report and partly on fresh feedback was presented by the government in the house. I took the line that because some new provisions had been introduced, the Bill must come back to the Standing Committee. Pranab Mukherjee called a meeting in which he also called Veerappa Moily, the Minister for Corporate Affairs. Moily was reluctant to send it to the Committee again but Pranab Mukherjee insisted. He said, “why did you introduce new provisions in the Bill, it becomes a new Bill, and therefore the Standing Committee should examine it.” It was sent to the Committee for examination, and we hurried up with it and gave our report. That was the kind of person Pranab Mukherjee was.

When he became Finance Minister and I was the chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance, there were many occasions when he would invite me for lunch at his place, and we would informally discuss some of the issues that were on the table before the Standing Committee. In one such meeting, he had just introduced the GST Bill, and then he invited me for lunch. We were discussing the GST Bill, and he said “Yashwantji please feel free to examine it as closely as possible and I assure you that whatever you recommend from the Standing Committee we will accept as government. Of course, he moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan before the GST Bill could be reworked and brought back before the Finance Ministry.

He was a person who did not mind being with the opposition in a very friendly manner. That is why he had friends across political parties. And everyone loved Pranab Mukherjee.

That’s why I say that he was one of the tallest politicians of his generation and a remarkable person.

(Earlier) in the Rajya Sabha, he was a leading member of the house from the Congress benches, and I was the Finance Minister. We were having a discussion on some economic issue, perhaps the budget. I told him “this is what I have learned from you. I have learned a lot from you Pranab babu, and this one particular lesson is from when you were Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. This is what you used to advocate. So, I have included this in the budget.” He was very happy with that.

The Personal Touch

He had a fantastic memory. Every time I met him, he would remember some episode from our exchanges in Parliament and say, “you remember you said this?” I had gone to see him when he was President in some connection, and he said he was very cross with me because I had stopped seeing him when he had moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan. I admitted my mistake, and he said he would invite me, to which I replied, whenever. Promptly after that, in a few days, he invited me to Rashtrapati Bhavan for lunch. It was just the two of us. He was really, a very friendly person and a great gentleman. I shall personally miss him a great deal.

Yashwant Sinha is Former Finance Minister and External Affairs Minister, Government of India

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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