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.