The mood was unusually sombre at the banquet the president hosted at Rashtrapati Bhavan for India's 13th prime minister and his council of ministers Saturday evening. The Congress party's crushing defeat in the general elections hung heavy in the air.
Speaking without a prepared text, President Mukherjee went with Manmohan Singh down memory lane. He said he was impressed with Singh's "depth of knowledge and advise on crucial economic issues, and his contribution to the economic reforms in the '90s will always be remembered", according to officials present. Mukherjee also praised Singh's contribution to economic policies as the Reserve Bank of India governor and deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission.
The president, who is known for his formidable intellect and knowledge of government policies and laws, said at a personal level he would remember how he had always sought Singh's advice and support in the discharge of his responsibilities in the government over the long years. He hoped Singh would continue to devote the remaining years to the service of the nation.
Manmohan Singh, who for a decade and till a week ago as prime minister kept to his routine of meeting the president once a week, made an emotional speech. "Forgive me if I become a little emotional...Our partnership goes back 40 years," Singh said.
The two have interacted right from the time Singh was secretary in the ministry of finance and also chief economic advisor in the ministry. Mukherjee was then finance minister. He said Mukherjee's support was of great value and that the economic reforms would not have gained momentum without his support.
He said Mukherjee was a valued colleague in the UPA, as the senior most member of the council of ministers who shouldered enormous burden in the Group of Ministers. "His contribution has been of lasting value. The president's wisdom, knowledge, and experience are a great national asset.. From the core of my heart I thank you for your contribution to nation building," Singh said.
Besides the ministers, the guests included BJP leader and Leader of Opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, Vice President Hamid Ansari, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary Pulok Chatterjee, and Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth.
After the speeches, the guests tucked into a mix of Bengali and Punjabi cuisine. There was sorshe bata fish, or fish cooked with mustard paste, potol dolma, or a veg delicacy made of parwal, in the Bengali section. The Punjabi cuisine had on offer kadhi pakoda, murgh nihari and galauti kebab. There was also anjeer ke koftey and arbi kebabs. The dessert comprised of chena payas, a Bengali sweet dish, and mango cheesecake.
The naval band struck up some lilting tunes, a mix of English and Hindi. The final farewell tune was the Bollywood number "Chaltey, chaltey".
Manmohan Singh earlier in the day met President Mukherjee and handed in his resignation, which was accepted and he was asked to continue till formation of a new government. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has swept to power, is to form the government with its leader Narendra Modi slated to become India's 14th prime minister.