NEW DELHI, July 24: Sitting in the verandah of his home here, Pranab Mukherjee, then a young MP, saw horses from the Rashtrapati Bhavan pass by and jokingly told his sister that he would like to be a presidential horse in his next birth. Indulgent as ever, Annapurna Banerjee, older to him by 10 years, prophesied that he would be President in this life itself. 

Today, President Pranab Mukherjee’s last day in office, is the culmination of that prophecy for a man known as the quintessential Man Friday of the Congress, rewarded as President yet not trusted enough to be Prime Minister. And the horse vignette from an interview that Banerjee gave could illustrate what is a fitting end note to a remarkable five-decade political career - some dreams do come true. India’s 13th President will step down tomorrow for Ram Nath Kovind, a long way from the reluctant schoolboy of West Bengal’s Mirati village who grew to be one of India’s most respected politicians. It all started when Indira Gandhi spotted him during a by-election in Midnapore where he was VK Krishna Menon’s election agent. His astute management saw Menon, a Malayali contesting in West Bengal as a candidate of Congress’ rival faction Bangla Congress, win with a huge margin. Impressed with his political acumen, Gandhi brought Mukherjee into the Congress and initiated his parliamentary journey through the Rajya Sabha in 1969. 

There have been many firsts since then for the 81- year-old, fondly known as Pranab Da. He became India’s youngest Finance Minister of India in 1982 at the age of 47. From 2004, he went on to head three crucial ministries – External Affairs, Defence and Finance – and became the first occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to have this distinction. He will also go down in the history as the only nonPrime Minister who was the leader of the Lok Sabha for eight years. Known for his political acumen and ability to form consensus across party lines, Mukherjee was heading 24 of 39 GOMs (groups of ministers) when he became President in 2012. Between, 2004-12, he had chaired 95 GOMs. That is why friends and rivals will agree that there was enough politics left in him when he accepted his retirement from active politics in the form of the presidency. It’s a mixed bag legacy for the politician who won his first election in 2004 from Jangipur in West Bengal. Mukherjee’s lasting contribution as Finance Minister, for instance, includes introduction of an egregious tax change – a retrospective amendment to the Income Tax act that targeted Vodafone and allowed closed tax cases to be reopened. That amendment shook foreign investor confidence in India as a safe investment destination, say experts. 
A tough taskmaster, avid reader and history aficionado, Mukherjee has ensured that he leaves his mark on the presidency. He has made it easier for common people to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The long-neglected Durbar Hall was given a fresh lease of life with Mukherjee ensuring that important events were held under its dome that had pigeons nestling in it. The library was renovated. Books, including some rare ones, were catalogued and researchers given access. The impressive presidential palace also opened its gates for writers, artists, innovators, scientists and students through an in-residency programme.

 Author Amitav Ghosh, who spent four days in Rashtrapati Bhavan as part of the programme, described the initiative as an attempt at “democratising an essentially profoundly u n d e m o c r a t i c building”. – PTI

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