Pranab does it all: Budget in the morning, diplomacy in the afternoon

February 16th, 2009 - 7:13 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghNew Delhi, Feb 16 (IANS) Veteran Congress politician Pranab Mukherjee is the archetypal multi-tasker and role-player. In the morning, he presents the interim budget, does a spot of number-crunching and tom-toms myriad achievements of the poll-bound UPA government. A few hours later, he is cosseted with US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, discussing Mumbai, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What next?

It’s not the first time Mukherjee has juggled diverse things on his plate. Or, for that matter, presented the budget as he did Monday morning. Exactly 25 years ago, Pranab babu or dada, as he is affectionately called by fellow-politicians, was at the finance minister’s podium.

“It’s nothing new for him. He was a successful finance minister. He is a multi-dimensional person actively involved in governance of the country,” senior Congress leader M. Veerappa Moily told IANS.

Although a lot has changed since - the country’s economy has been radically transformed and liberated from the tyranny of the licence-quota regime - some things have not changed. Last time, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister of the country. This time round, Manmohan Singh may be the prime minister, but a Gandhi is again at the helm of the party. The only difference is that he was a Rajya Sabha member 25 years ago and now he is a member of the Lok Sabha.

Not many politicians in India can boast of Mukherjee’s rich and diversified experience. In the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, where Mukherjee started as defence minister, he now heads over half a dozen inter-ministerial committees in areas ranging from telecom spectrum to finance. Political folklore has it no big decision is taken without his nod. He is perhaps the only minister in the government who has been finance and defence minister before he returned to South Block for a second innings as foreign minister over two years ago.

In fact, the 74-year-old politician, who is currently external affairs minister, acting finance minister and a virtual caretaker prime minister, is habitually doing disparate things: hobnobbing with politicians to stitch pre-poll tie-ups, giving a pep talk to businessmen, holding talks with a visiting foreign dignitary, or piling up pressure on Pakistan for its suspected role in the Mumbai mayhem.

True to his reputation as a workaholic, barely hours after the rigours of presenting the interim budget Monday, he was deep in talks with Richard Holbrooke, New Delhi’s first high-level contact with Washington since Barack Obama was sworn in as president.

Not surprisingly, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underwent a bypass surgery nearly three weeks ago, all eyes were on Mukherjee. He did not quite make it to the country’s top, but quietly took over many of the prime ministerial responsibilities like chairing cabinet meetings and spearheading India’s diplomatic offensive against Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. A day after Pakistan admitted the role of its citizens in the Mumbai attacks, it was Mukherjee who made a statement in parliament, reminding Pakistan yet again to do more to bring the perpetrators of the carnage to justice.

Three days later, when Mukherjee, sporting his trademark bandhgala (close-neck) suit, a sartorial preference that could be seen in his photographs as a finance minister decades ago, presented the budget, he looked a natural for the job. It’s a different matter though there was more politics than economics in his budget speech.

In a recent TV interview, Mukherjee said 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 1 a.m. But before I go to sleep, I just touch her forehead to find her in deep sleep,” he said in “Walk the Talk” on NDTV.

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