As KKR team director Joy Bhattacharya tweeted after Pranab-da’s name was finally announced “Pranab babu has got the ideal job of any Bengali ‘bhadralok’. Great title, huge house, lots of perks and no real power or responsibility.”
In Bengali, we call that a “goodjob.”
It is easy to make fun of Pranab-da and his Bonglish and his nickname Poltu but his life reads like the textbook of the babu's art of survival. Now that book should be reissued as ‘Pranab-da’s Guide to how to be a Babu and Still Win Friends and Influence People.’
Rule 1: Thou shalt rock no boats. A good babu has all the characteristics of our man Jeeves of Wodehouse fame. He knows which closet hides what skeleton but rarely rattles the keys in public. Above all he must be completely colourless and draw no attention to himself. “He lived in the tradition of Bengali politician — mach-bhaat for lunch, dhuti-panjabi for attire, and Ambassador for rides to work. Nobody in his extended family saw their circumstances improve by scandalous degrees,"writes Udayan Namboodiri in a hit piece on Pranab Mukherjee for the Pioneer. If he helped a Dhirubhai Ambani with export-import licences while he was the minister of commerce or with preferential treatment for import duties on the ingredients for polyester during his stint as finance minister under Indira Gandhi that was all done, says Dhirubhai biographer Hamish McDonald, “in a way that fitted all the norms… so one can’t accuse him of anything untoward, expect perhaps that he clearly took a fairly favourable view on the company’s development.” “Nobody but Pranab babu personifies better the institutionalisation of the politician-industrialist axis which is all around us today," writes Namboodiri but in an age of ostentatious corruption, Pranab-da wears his stains discreetly. And that easy-to-clean polyester reputation has paid off handsomely in the last lap to Raisina Hill.
Rule 2: Thou shalt by-heart it and commit to memory. A babu knows he has no charisma, little grassroots appeal. So he has to make up for that by knowing his facts inside out. Pranab Mukherjee is frequently described as a “walking encyclopedia”. A former secretary who worked under him told Business Today, “He has a photographic memory for the fine print and remembers negotiating details and their articles and clauses like nobody can. So whatever you tell him, he will tell you more about it." He sounds like my barrister great uncles who could recite family arguments from 1954 verbatim to score a point in some other debate thirty years later. He will hardly make for a dynamic president, says McDonald dismissing him as “ yet another Indian politican who quibbles about details.” But the devil is always in the details. Pranab-babu showed that with that controversial note that so embarrassed his cabinet rival P Chidambaram during the 2G scandal. Any babu knows that in the cloak-and-dagger world of politics a paper cut is the most dangerous wound of all.
Rule 3: A babu’s best friend is ... another babu. Pranab Mukherjee might be a dyed-in-the-khadi Congressman but he’s always kept his backchannels open to the other babus of all political hues. It was actually Jyoti Basu who brought Pranab Mukherjee to Indira Gandhi’s notice. She was impressed by him, picked his brains and no doubt liked the fact that he had little real constituency of his own in Bengal. While the CPI-M and Congress were at loggerheads on the streets of Kolkata, that relationship between the babus at the top survived. Jyoti-babu always had a rapport with Pranab Mukherjee and helped him with his Rajya Sabha seat in 1993. No wonder Mamata fought tooth and nail against his rise. He might not be part of the Presidency-educated elite but for all the talk of Bengali pride and "my younger sister” these days, she suspects he and the communists are bhai-bhai. In her book, Didi - A Political Biography, Monobina Gupta recounts Trinamool's qualms about Pranab Mukherjee. "He is close to the CPI-M," a senior leader told her. "Let us not forget that at the age of seventy, he won the Jangipur seat with the CPI-M's help." And now as proof that ultimately the old babus club comes through, after a call from Pranab to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the West Bengal communists have arm-twisted the Politburo into supporting Pranab-babu. It’s not about being a Bengali. It’s all about being a bhadralok.
Rule 4: Thou shalt be a company man. The babu is always a company man, not an ambitious entrepreneur. In the case of the Congress, the company is the family business. And as a company man, his loyalty is his biggest asset. Pranab Mukherjee was first elected to the Rajya Sabha from the Congress in 1969. His son says he stepped into the Rajya Sabha the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Since then he has doggedly hung in there preferring small steps between cabinet posts to any risky giant leaps. The one exception was when Pranab was purged after Rajiv Gandhi apparently thought he had designs on the PM’s job post Indira Gandhi's assassination. He even launched his own short-lived Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. But his heart was not in it, writes Rasheed Kidwai in his book 24, Akbar Road. “Many years later, when asked what his party had been called, Pranab admitted that even he had forgotten its name.” Pranab Mukherjee has proved his loyalty to the Family many times over since then, even swallowing his discomfiture at having to serve under Manmohan Singh when he had once been MMS’ boss. Sonia Gandhi did not even make him Deputy PM. But he stayed put. “Rajiv’s widow was left with no choice but to acknowledge Pranab’s unwavering loyalty to the Gandhi dynasty—Sonia included—and life-long services to the party by nominating him for the country’s highest constitutional post for the next five years,” writes Outlook.
Now at the age of 76, Pranab-da is set to received the ultimate prize for being himself: the ideal Bengali bhadralok. He used to smoke a pipe and loves his Rabindrasangeet. He goes to his ancestral village every year for Durga Puja, puts on the pattabastra of a priest and recites the Sree Sree Chandi prayers. His old family retainer says he savours her katla fish jhol. And he wields power discreetly, almost prissily, never getting his dhoti dirty.
That Poltu-babu is set to become the President of India is a testimonial to the enduring power of babudom. That he needed an old ruffian like Mulayam Singh Yadav to give him that final push to the top, however, is proof of the limits of that power in today's politics.
But let’s leave those nagging quibbles aside for now. When Pranab Mukherjee touched his elder sister Annapurna’s feet, she said “ Aay baba ghorey aay.” (“Come dear, come home.”)
The bhadralok has finally found his home.