Pranab Mukherjee caught my imagination when he shared the stage with late Gundu Rao during the Rashtriya Samajwadi Party congress. Rao hailed from my home district Kodagu in Karnataka.
Sitting next to the burly former Karnataka CM, Mukherjee appeared to be a different breed of politician, exuding intellectual charm and the confidence of a winner. This pipe smoking, thin-built maverick politician from West Bengal had an aura of his own. He was young, energetic, mercurial and charming, while also possessing a razor-sharp intellect and the finest attributes of heart that one day, would take him to the pinnacle of glory.
After joining the Congress party in 1969, he had a meteoric rise and became the most trusted colleague of Indira Gandhi, holding several important portfolios and playing a crucial role during the Emergency. When Indira Gandhi, the then PM was assassinated in 1984, he was a strong contender to become the next PM which he felt was denied to him after a reluctant and politically inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi was chosen by his party.
Caught under the web of power struggle within the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi unceremoniously expelled him along with other dissidents from the party in 1986.
He formed his party, Rashtriya Samajwadi Party that did not last long, compelling him to return to the Congress fold in 1989. Thereafter, his grasp over party politics was strong and he had a smooth sail, serving in various capacities under Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. He remained a key player in the Congress government before he became the 13th President of India.
While he was the defence minister, I happened to visit him at his Talkotora residence for certifying his fitness to go to Antarctica. I came to know later that he preferred this modest house over the more spacious and attractive Lutyen’s bungalow. After all, in this very house bearing the unlucky number 13, he witnessed a rapid ascendency in his political career after he moved to Delhi.
It was 8am and as I entered his living room, he got up and greeted me making me feel at ease. After initial pleasantries, I had a detailed medical history in front of me to analyse and decide about his health status.
He appeared calm, humble, courteous, profound and scholarly. He was full of energy exuding warmth without any palpable tension. I learnt that his daily routine was rigorous lasting almost 18 hours, making me wonder how his fragile body, with multiple ailments, could withstand such a punishing schedule on a daily basis.
At that time, he was the most sought after politician for tackling the many troubles affecting not only his own party but also of the nation which earned him the moniker of ‘troubleshooter.’
I then realised that behind his thin physical exterior, there lies a strong inner-self that has withstood all the upheaval in his chequered career, thanks to his disciplined life and religious bent of mind. I was more than certain that owing to his ‘simple living, high thinking’ lifestyle, his physical body was capable of surmounting many more hurdles, making my job of declaring him fit for embarking a tough journey to visit the Indian base located in the icy continent, simple.
While he was the President, I had seen him many times and for the last time in 2016, while presenting my credentials on my appointment as the President’s Honorary Surgeon.
In all such meetings, my impression about him remained unchanged and respect for him became more with each day. Although he was at the pinnacle of his public life, power and glory did not corrupt him. I found in him the same Pranab Da- down to earth, simple and easy to communicate as he was when I met him for the first time. My meeting which was scheduled for 15 minutes went on for an hour and I discussed many things including the life and times of Shri Aurobindo whom he was very fond of.
Before I left Rashtrapati Bhavan, I gave him a collection of my articles which he accepted with a smile on his face and a sense of gratitude. While returning home with my wife and son, I was cherishing those fine moments with the President and thanking God for such a wonderful interaction with a gentleman, a scholar and a statesman. His versatility reflected his transcendental personality that was sublimated by deep religiosity and selfless service.
When I learnt that he was Covid-19 positive and being treated for the blood clot at Army Hospital (R&R) where his late wife Mrs Surva Mukherjee was treated by me for her respiratory ailment, I felt for a while that he may sail through as he has done in the past, under most turbulent conditions.
I knew for certain that he would receive the best treatment in this hospital, with experts in the field attending to him round the clock and doing their best. His preference for Army Hospital (R&R) was natural as he considered it to be the best in the country- highly professional with state of the art facilities, during his long association with Armed Forces- initially as defence minister and later as the supreme commander.
Considering his advancing age and long-standing co-morbidities with a deadly combination of coronavirus and brain clot, I felt anxious and many recent experiences of Covid-19 infections in the elderly made me jittery.
I knew that with coronavirus and cerebral clot, leading to coma and lung failure, the prognosis appeared grim. I was praying, like millions across the country, hoping for the best and expecting a miracle.
Destiny denied him the PM post, yet he became President and was awarded the Bharat Ratna. Now, death has robbed him from us, liberating him from prangs of physical misery and transcending him into higher planes of existence, much higher than what he scaled in his life. The legacy that he has left is sure to endure for a long time while the void by his absence is hard to fill.
Lt Gen Dr BNBM Prasad, SM, VSM(Retd) is former physician and honorary surgeon to the President.