When Mukherjee took oath in 2012 and moved into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he became a member of an exclusive club, but even within that group, he belonged to a smaller subset—that of an active politician who had been elevated to Raisina Hill.
The presidents before him who were part of this group were Rajendra Prasad, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Giani Zail Singh and R. Venkataraman.
Mukherjee wasn’t just any other active career politician, he held some of the most important ministries in his time and was a serious contender for the post of prime minister, twice. From finance to defence to external affairs, he was a five-time Rajya Sabha member and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha, in 2004 and 2009.
“He brought the energy of an active politician into the President’s office and left no field untouched. There wasn’t any file or proposal brought in front of him that he did not consider extensively, or weigh the pros and cons of before taking a decision," says Thomas Mathew, additional secretary to President Mukherjee.
Rashtrapati Bhavan officials, who worked closely with Mukherjee, say he took his role of protector of the Constitution very seriously, even if it meant taking a stand different from what the central government recommended. Be it the Rights to Fair Compensation and Transparency in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 or the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Fifth Ordinance 2016, the President expressed his displeasure over repeated promulgation of the ordinances. But that didn’t stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from lavishing praise on the 81-year-old, comparing him to a father.
Mukherjee holds a master’s degree in history and political science as well as one in law from Calcutta University. His stint in politics began with his election to the Rajya Sabha in 1969. Mukherjee has often spoken about his admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, though he considered Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi his mentor.
“There was always a full awareness of the responsibility the office carries," says Balveer Arora, political analyst, referring to Mukherjee and the President’s office.
Arora says the President spoke up when he needed to, referring to the time when Mukherjee spoke about intolerance and the need to preserve free thought, speech and expression. He has even spoken out against campus violence as well as the need for institutions to encourage free speech and debate.
In fact, every time there has been a crisis of sorts in the society during the course of the past five years, Mukherjee, the consummate politician, has figured out a way to put his thoughts across without seeming to rap the government on the knuckles.
“Even as a politician, he was a trouble-shooter for the Congress party, known to keep his thoughts to himself but quietly working behind the scenes," says a former associate of the President.
That Mukherjee was an avid reader and someone deeply interested in intellectual pursuits was a well-known fact throughout his political career, but the form this interest took during his tenure as President was rather unexpected. As President, he worked very hard to restore Rashtrapati Bhavan to its previous glory—in terms of architecture and design—by restoring parts of it, opening a museum, and making it more accessible to the public.
“In-residence programmes were started for writers, artistes, innovators, where they were invited to come and stay in the President’s house, work on projects and go back as messengers of development and social cause," says Mathew. From writer Amitav Ghosh to artist couple Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, several notables have already been Rashtrapati Bhavan’s artists in residence.
However, Mukherjee did not please anti-capital punishment activists with his reluctance to grant mercy petition to those on death row. In fact, he rejected 30 of them though, noticeably, he went against the advice of the home ministry and commuted the death sentences on four convicts accused in the Bara caste massacre of 1992 to life. Three of the four are Dalits.
Any Indian President who will follow the 11th President, the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, will always have enormous shoes to fill. Mukherjee, however, seems to have managed to carry that legacy forward.
It now remains to be seen whether the former politician and now former president will let retired life take over or find a way to continue to be relevant.