Pranab Mukherjee has undeniable political skills, and his decades in public life have brought him respect abroad. The presidency is largely ceremonial, but he might well play a key role for the world's biggest democracy.
Pranab Mukherjee, elected president of India on Sunday, has held a long list of political posts. The law school graduate and historian has served as finance and foreign minister several times. As defense minister from 2004 to 2006, he prepared an important Indian-US nuclear deal.
In 1969, Mukherjee became a member of the upper house of India's parliament for the first time. Within his Congress Party, he is viewed as a jack-of-all-trades and as capable of overcoming many difficult situations.
The presidency crowns a highly successful career for the 76-year-old Mukherjee.
"He is certainly the most capable man for the job at the moment," said Rajendra Kumar Jain of New Dehli's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"All parties acknowledge this," the political scientist added. "The most important reason for this reputation is his authoritative way of doing politics and his efforts to reach compromise. That's what makes him so popular."
However, Mukherjee's political run has had its share of ups and downs. His career has come close to breaking, and Mukherjee has caused controversy within his own party. His knack for getting up after falling down has kept him in the Indian news.
"Everything I am and do today, I learned from my mentor Indira Gandhi," Mukherjee recently told Indian broadcaster NDTV.
Gandhi, the third prime minister of India, took Mukherjee under her wing while he was still a young strategist in the 1970s. She recognized the young man's strengths and cherished his loyalty. Gandhi appointed Mukherjee finance minister when he was 46.
Following Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, Mukherjee's political career saw a setback. Mukherjee accompanied the recently deceased leader's son Rajiv on the campaign trail in Mukherjee's home state of West Bengal. During a plane trip, Rajiv Gandhi asked Mukherjee who he thought the new prime minister should be.
Mukherjee answered it should be the minister with the most experience, trying to allude delicately to himself. The exchange sparked a rumor that Mukherjee wanted to do everything in his power to become prime minister, and that led to his political isolation. The charismatic Rajiv Gandhi went on to handily win the election.
Out of frustration, Mukherjee formed his own party in 1986, calling it the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. The movement failed to win supporters, leading to the most difficult period ever for the deeply religious Mukherjee, who practices Hinduism. He lost his seat in India's upper house of parliament. Ultimately, though, his career would rally.
Sonia Gandhi with then-foreign minister Mukherjee in 2009
As it became clear that Rajiv Gandhi would probably not be reelected in 1989, Mukherjee rejoined the Congress Party. After Gandhi was assassinated, his widow Sonia became chair of the Congress Party. Mukherjee became her most faithful follower and political pupil.
Potential for influence
With legislative power vested in the hands of the prime minister, the Indian president's duties are mainly ceremonial. But as in Germany, the president's signature is required for all bills passed in parliament. He has the power to send them back for alterations to the legislature.
India's president technically appoints the prime minister. Political scientist Rajendra Kumar Jain said that current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has struggled with corruption allegations and slow growth in his second term.
"There is speculation of snap elections before 2014," Jain said.
India expert Joachim Betz of the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies in Hamburg said Mukherjee could end up tipping the balance if there's a stalemate between India's major parties.
"In the last twenty years, Pranab Mukherjee has become the hope of India's middle class," Betz said. "He has resisted many questionable government requests."
The expert added that the Indian president has more opportunities to exert influence than the German head of state. To date, Indian presidents have taken their constitutional responsibilities very seriously.
Outgoing president Prathiba Pratil was considered a weak incumbent. Her predecessor A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a nuclear scientist, was more popular thanks to innovative projects to support young people as well as his common touch.
It will be interesting to see how Mukherjee conducts the last post of his career. He previously intended to retire from politics in 2014. "Now it will be a bit later," he recently quipped. He'll have to wait five years before taking up his hobbies of reading, gardening and enjoying classical music full-time.
Author: Priya Esselborn / srs
Editor: Greg Wiser