Pranab Mukherjee's latest book, the fourth volume of his memoirs titled The Presidential Years, started a controversy weeks before its impending publication. Mukherjee's children-- Abhijit and Sharmistha started a Twitter war over the publication of the book with Sharmistha batting for its release and Abhijit asking the publishers to stop it.
However, despite their differences, the book was out last week and it instantly grabbed many headlines for Pranab Mukherjee's candid comments and contemplation on the downfall of Congress, his comparison of the two Indian prime ministers with whom he had worked, Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh. It also includes his version on many international and domestic events.
As a chronicle of his years as the President of India, Mukherjee, in his book, also recounts many interesting anecdotes that aren't in public knowledge. One such story is that of Barack Obama's pets who signed with their paw-prints on a New Year Card that was sent to Mukherjee by Obama and his wife, Michelle. In the book, Mukherjee recounts the incident and writes, "During the visit (referring to Obama's 2015 India visit as the chief guest for Republic day celebration), Obama presented to me a facsimile of a telegram dispatched by former US president, Harry Truman, to our first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad, framed in a personalized plaque. It is preserved in a museum constructed during my time.
This was followed by another personal gift in December 2015, when, as New Year greetings, Obama sent a card consisting of the signatures by everyone in the US first family along with the paw imprints of their two pets. This was true American humour, which has a personal touch of the guests. The overall impression that I had with my conversation with him was positive.
I was impressed by the depth of his understanding of world affairs and also the developments in India since 1947. During this visit, Obama said that I had, all through the decades—since the 70s till I became president, and through different phases of the India–US relationship—stood strongly in favour of promoting bilateral ties. He said that I had worked for it whether in office or out of it.
I was totally taken aback, but I could do nothing. The newly appointed US envoy to India, Richard Verma, then told me that the president does not share his speech beforehand but speaks from the rostrum extempore. However, regardless of the circumstances, as president, I always kept in mind that it was not my job to argue or impress upon my guests on the rationality of our views or our stand. As president, I only reiterated the stand taken and the views expressed by the government of the day. I never tried to be argumentative or to score a point."
In the book, Mukherjee also recounted the details of Obama's visit during the Republic day parade in 2015 and how that affected the protocols that are followed before and after the event. Mukherjee said that while the US security service insisted that he travelled to the parade venue with Obama in his bulletproof car, which was brought from the US, Mukherjee chose not to do it as it was not the general protocol, and politely but firmly declined the offer. He writes,
"Barack Obama became the first US President to be invited as chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2015, although most American presidents, since the days of Eisenhower, have visited India during their tenure. But not only was Obama the first exception as the chief guest for the Republic Day event, but he is also the only President of the US to have visited India twice during his tenure. The choice and presence of a chief guest for the Republic Day event does not convey any special message except to project friendship and proximity between the two countries; Obama’s presence was no exception to this sentiment.
However, there was a difference in the protocol that was followed during the Republic Day parade that year. The normal practice is that the chief guest arrives at Rashtrapati Bhavan a few minutes before the president leaves the official residence for Rajpath, where the Republic Day parade takes place. Both the host and the guest share the same car while passing along the crowds before they arrive at the saluting dais.
Before leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president receives the national salute from the President’s Bodyguard (PBG) and the guest watches the event. Then again the PBG gives the national salute to the president, which he takes from the dais, with the PM and other guests in presence. At the end of the function, the return journey is in the same order. From Rashtrapati Bhavan, the guest departs to his accommodation (in a hotel). In some cases, like with the King of Bhutan who stayed with the president, the guests accompanied me on both journeys.
In Obama’s case, the US Secret Service insisted that their president travel in a specially armoured vehicle that had been brought along from the US. They wanted me to travel in the same armoured car along with Obama. This deviation raised a minor diplomatic issue. I politely but firmly refused to do so, and requested the MEA to inform the US authorities that when the US president travels with the Indian president in India, he would have to trust our security arrangements. It cannot be the other way around.
So, ultimately, it was decided that Obama would come from his hotel in his car two minutes before my arrival and would be received by PM Modi; they would then receive me when I arrived. The same arrangement was made for my departure."
The following excerpts have been published with permission from Rupa Publications.