Pranab Mukherjee set to become Indian president | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 18.07.2012
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Pranab Mukherjee set to become Indian president

As India gets ready to elect a new president on Thursday, the ruling party's candidate Pranab Mukherjee is largely expected to win. With 40 years of political experience he is considered the best man for the job.

The 4,896-member electoral college includes all national and state legislators. Although the results will only be announced on Sunday, Pranab Mukherjee, who is the candidate of the ruling Congress party, seems to have won the support of enough smaller parties to ensure his victory.

The 76-year-old will take over from Pratibha Patil whose presidency has been rather low-profile. Analysts predict he might wield an unusual degree of influence.

Having first entered the upper house of parliament in 1969, the list of offices Mukherjee has held is long. He has been both the finance and foreign minister of India and was defense minister from 2004 to 2006, during which time he helped prepare the controversial Indo-American nuclear deal.

The man for all seasons has helped the government out of a number of tight spots.

"He is surely the most capable man for the post," says Rajendra Kumar Jain, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "All the parties recognize this. The most important reason for this respect is his reserved approach to politics and his efforts to make compromises. That's what makes him so popular."

Ups and downs

However, popular as he is today, Pranab Mukherjee's rise has not been without its ups and downs.

He attributes his successful career to Indira Gandhi and recently told Indian media that he had learned everything from her, calling her his "mentor."

Having taken in the ambitious young strategist in the 1970s, she rewarded his absolute loyalty by appointing him finance minister in 1982. He was only 46 at the time.

However, her assassination two years later marked a rupture. Mukherjee was in his home state West Bengal at the time, on a campaign tour with Gandhi's son Rajiv.

According to legend, when Rajiv Gandhi asked Pranab Mukherjee who should take over as prime minister until new elections. Mukherjee reportedly answered that it should be the minister with the most experience - as had happened after the deaths of Jawarharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri - i.e. that he should take over the post. The rumor quickly spread that Mukherjee would do all he could to get to the top and he was promptly ostracized. Rajiv Gandhi won the elections in 1984 by a landslide.

Two years later, Pranab Mukherjee founded his own party - the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress - largely out of frustration. However, he was not able to gather much support and entered perhaps one of the most difficult phases of his life.

The deeply religious man - father of two sons and one daughter - seemed at a dead-end. However, he made a comeback when it became clear that Rajiv Gandhi would not be reelected in 1989 and was welcomed back into the fold of the Congress party.

After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991, Mukherjee became a loyal follower of his widow Sonia, who is currently Congress leader.

Ceremonial post

The office of president in India is largely titular with all executive powers vested in the prime minister. However, the president can play a decisive role when elections produce hung parliaments or state governments are dissolved.

"Manmohan Singh's government has had to deal with a slowing economy and allegations of corruption in its second term," said Rajendra Kumar Jain. "That's why there is some speculation about elections being held before 2014."

If there is a standoff between the major national parties, the president might play an important tipping role, said Joachim Betz from the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies in Hamburg.

"Over the past 20 years, the office of president has become the white hope of the middle class because it has opposed many of the government's dubious plans."

India's presidents have generally met with varied success. Abdul Kalam remains unforgotten because of his innovative projects promoting youth and his closeness to the people, whereas his successor Pratibha Patil, the country's first female president, has been considered rather weak.

If Mukherjee wins on Thursday, he will become president at the end of July.

Author: Priya Esselborn / act
Editor: Arun Chowdhury

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