The first thing visitors see when they enter Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi is a wall with 12 black-and-white portraits of former Presidents of India. There is no space there for Pranab Mukherjee, yet. A veteran security staff member says the portraits will be “possibly rearranged” to maintain symmetry.
By 10 am, visitors pour in. Many are settling into the seating area under the portraits while waiting for their passes, others clicking photographs. Many have come to see the interactive museum, where among the usual fare of priceless artefacts and historically significant documents are also memorabilia left behind or donated by former Presidents. Mukherjee, for instance, has donated, among other items, his entire collection of pipes.
Many had wondered how Mukherjee, an active parliamentarian who never missed a day of work, would adapt to being the President. After all, he had at different points of time been the chief whip of the Congress Parliamentary Party and an important minister in various Cabinets in his long political career, but for a five-year gap between 1984 and 1989.
The answer, the staff at the museum now conclude, is “an active one”. Roshan Kumar Singh, who works at the museum, describes the last five years as a “blur”. “He already had an idea or a vision of what he wanted to do. He had obviously come to Rashtrapati Bhavan during his time as a minister and had an idea of what he wanted. There were priceless artefacts which were lying in different locked rooms and storerooms collecting dust. We combed through everything, preserving and displaying them.”
On completing his first year, Mukherjee talked about the need to increase accessibility of the common man to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The high-tech storytelling museum he would go on to set up now houses everything from restored carpets to watercolour plans of Rashtrapati Bhavan made by Edwin Lutyens. The museum which, at once, seeks to educate viewers about the role of the President as per the Constitution, and preserve the heritage of the estate itself and the legacy of past presidents, is perhaps the perfect metaphor for Pranab Mukherjee’s presidency.
“I have been here nine years and I have never seen a President who has been this consistently active. Treasuring one’s history, understanding and abiding by the Constitution while moving forward is what this museum is about, and this was also what Pranab Mukherjee’s vision was,” Roshan Kumar Singh adds. The initiative to restore buildings at Rashtrapati Bhavan began right at the beginning, five years ago. At a time when, those closest to him admit, Mukherjee had a hard time adjusting to the sudden change of pace. He would often be found sitting in one of his new home’s many drawing rooms, a book open on his lap, with the television switched on to a news channel relaying the day’s developments.
One close aide of Mukherjee recalls asking him how it felt to be the President, after being involved actively in politics for nearly five decades. “Did he feel bored, I asked. He answered, in his typical laconic style, ‘mixed feelings’.” Now, days before he steps out of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the legacy he leaves behind shows that the 81-year-old never ceased to work.
In the five years he spent in Rashtrapati Bhavan, his routine never changed. Mukherjee wakes up early in the morning, goes for a walk in the Mughal Gardens, and then reads the chandi path (a Sanskrit scripture about Goddess Durga) for over an hour, a lifelong habit. His former Cabinet colleagues say people who knew him would never call him during that hour, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi, even when he served as finance minister. He follows this up with a late breakfast while reading the newspapers, and, after scanning through news channels, gets down to work.
“On days when he had appointments with dignitaries or politicians or other events on his protocol, he would follow this routine. But even on days when he didn’t have any work as such, he would ensure that he would go to the office and work. Whether this meant reading books or studying documents for forthcoming meetings, he never ceased to work,” says a member of the security staff.
The only break from this routine, the security staff at Rashtrapati Bhavan say, was during festivals or on his birthday. “On Diwali or his birthday, the President made it a point to meet each and every one of us and distribute sweets. He would interact with us briefly and thanked all of us for our work,” says Devendra Malik, a police officer posted at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Mukherjee’s family says he was never a big fan of the movies, preferring to read instead, but some of that changed in his years on the President’s Estate. “He started watching films, particularly old Bengali films, with his late wife (Suvra), at the smaller auditorium in Rashtrapati Bhavan,” a family member says. Many of his hours at the office were spent figuring out the details of the museum. Officially opened in 2014, the museum has two wings — one set in a restored abandoned structure that once housed stables for horses, and the other in a garage for the President’s vehicles. While some of the artefacts there are expected — such as gifts by dignitaries from other countries, ranging from a ship fashioned out of cloves presented to the Indian President by his Indonesian counterpart to letters written by Lord Mountbatten to the Governor General’s Bodyguard (the predecessor of the President’s Bodyguard) — many were “re-discovered”.
Of the 340 rooms in Rashtrapati Bhavan, many had fallen into disrepair, with utensils stacked within. “The President asked us to open up the different rooms serving as storage spaces, and in many cases we saved things from literally rotting away,” says a member of the President’s secretariat. Eventually from these rooms, priceless artefacts emerged. The utensils that were discovered are being transferred to an under-construction exhibit being built as a replica of the Presidential kitchens.
Mukherjee also revived the Presidential buggy, a tradition discontinued 20 years ago, and started the Pranab Mukherjee Memorial Library. At the inauguration of the library, he spoke about “people’s desire and curiosity to know more about the highest constitutional office in the land”. The library has since become an integral part of life on the Presidential Estate, with its residents being issued library cards that grant them access to periodicals, books and newspapers.
But the fledgling museum faces challenges. As one official puts it, the curious bureaucratic nature of the President’s secretariat has made it difficult to “get publicity” and “increase footfalls”. One official explains, “We have a temporary art gallery here, and right now, the Japan Foundation has an exhibit here. But because we fall under the President’s secretariat, it is much harder to publicise. Or perhaps people feel that Rashtrapati Bhavan isn’t accessible. Moreover, we want to make the change of guards here something akin to that outside Buckingham Palace.”
At the same time, officials are certain that the artefacts rescued because of the President’s thrust to preserve the estate’s heritage will be enough to get visitors. As an example, they cite a moth-eaten carpet section that hangs at the museum. It took 200 Kashmiri weavers two years to make this zardozi carpet, commissioned by Edward Lutyens.
Mukherjee is hardly the first President though to concern himself with carpets and curtains. After becoming the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad had felt that the curtains left behind by the British had to be changed. Khadi Gram Udyog had been formed just then and, according to memoirs written by his secretary, Bimanesh Chatterji, the first President thought that workers could come in, change the curtains and thus bring in a wave of swadeshi. But this resulted in one of his earliest clashes with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who turned down the proposal while arguing that replacing the curtains would simply be a wasteful and expensive exercise.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mukherjee never disagreed on upholstery, last Sunday, Mukherjee did admit that there had been “key divergences” between the two. “But we have been able to keep those divergences, if there be any, only to ourselves. It did never find any place anywhere and it did not affect the relationship between the President and the PM, between the titular head and the actual head of the administration and council of ministers,” said Mukherjee.
That these “divergences of views” were kept to himself by Mukherjee surprised few in the Congress. Mukherjee’s preference for playing by the book is evident even in as small a thing as his official portrait at Rahstrapati Bhavan. Unlike former president Abdul Kalam who, along with the national flag, also has a replica of a rocket in his portrait, Mukherjee is seen standing plainly, barely a smile on his face.
Most of his former colleagues in Delhi and Bengal recall the sheer impossibility of trying to make Mukherjee talk about something he didn’t want to. One senior Bengal Congress leader said, “Indira Gandhi would often say that irrespective of what you want Pranab Mukherjee to say, only pipe smoke would come out. He gave up smoking, but didn’t start talking.”
On Friday, in one such quiet moment, the House went about preparing for the dinner the President was hosting later in the evening for his staff and doctors. The new ceremonial hall, built as an alternative venue for the “At Home” function hosted by the President, should rain hamper it in the Mughal Gardens, was being prepared. Heavy silver plates, embossed with the Ashoka emblem, along with matching cutlery and china had been laid out. The food, as always, was being prepared in the President’s kitchen by its staff of 200 chefs and butlers.
Ramesh Kumar, a member of the Presidential staff, helping out with the arrangements, looked on as flowers were put up at different corners of the massive space. “The end of each Presidency is like this,” he said. “There are dinners and there are farewells. There are goodbyes and thank yous. At the end of it all, there is a change of address.”
Photographs: Neeraj Priyadarshi