India’s first citizen-to-be didn’t mind showing his emotions in what was perhaps his last public function before the filing of nomination papers. So, when Assocham President R N Dhoot introduced Pranab Mukherjee as the finance minister and almost immediately corrected himself by saying he should refer to him as Mr President, the humour was not lost on anybody. Even Mukherjee, till then, engrossed in a sheaf of paper, noticed the well-intended gaffe and like the Buddha, smiled — pleased as Punch.
The security at the five-star venue at industry chamber Assocham’s seminar here was already upgraded to the VVIP ‘Z-plus category’, befitting a President. No wonder RAF (Rapid Action Force) personnel, an anti-bomb squad and sniffer dogs were manning a banking and insurance seminar, that too on a weekend, when Mumbai’s financial markets had a two-day breather.
The organisers were clear about the protocol and kept four seats vacant on either side of Mukherjee on the podium. It was, however, not clear what Bollywood’s original style diva Simi Grewal was doing as a compere at a banking seminar.
“Please continue to guide us even when you shift to your new address (Rashtrapati Bhavan),” said Dhoot. The bankers joined the chorus of praises for their boss — the FM. All the five speakers went overboard to outdo each other in heaping praises. Rana Kapoor, the YES Bank chief, took the cake. “I know sir, you work 16 hours a day. Your stature and experience will now give national development a boost,” said an ecstatic Kapoor.
It was clear the bankers, familiar with Mukherjee’s pearls of wisdom, would want to maintain a ‘working relationship’ with their respected ‘dada’ even in his new avatar.
As if the praises were not enough, a life-size garland recreating the national flag was specially brought to welcome Mukherjee. That clearly overwhelmed the finance minister, who went into “we shall overcome” mode — that the economic crisis was temporary and no problem was insurmountable, etc.
“The current crisis can be tackled by strong determination,” Mukherjee said. Clarifying he could not disregard the ground reality of high inflation, a slide in the rupee’s value and a fall in economic growth, he went on to add, “Despite the present concerns and difficulties, I must tell you India has emerged as the second fastest growing economy among BRICS and the fastest among emerging economies.” The applause from the audience was deafening. “This is what Presidents are supposed to say,” gushed a banker.
If you have been active in politics for over four decades and are as alert as Mukhrejee, time travel should be second nature. And, the 77-year old Pranab da effortlessly regaled the audience with anecdotes and memories. A de-stressed and satisfied self was evident, as he went down memory lane and related how he accepted the challenge when he shifted to the North Block from Udyog Bhavan (the commerce and industry ministry) in 1982.
It became clear Mukherjee was the most sought-after person at the moment — so much so that his aides kept coming to the podium with “important calls” he had to attend. India’s next Head of State would clearly have a lot of things to keep himself busy than just walking on the Rashtrapati Bhavan lawns.