NEW DELHI // Pranab Mukherjee took the oath of office yesterday as India's 13th president, declaring in his inaugural address that the nation's expanding prosperity cannot leave behind its poorest people.
After the 30-minute swearing-in ceremony, Mr Mukherjee mounted a podium to urge the country to eradicate the poverty that still blights Asia's third-largest economy and he recalled childhood memories of a famine that killed millions of people in his home state of West Bengal. The World Bank estimates 800 million Indians live on less than US$2 (Dh7) a day.
"For our development to be real, the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India," Mr Mukherjee told ministers, lawmakers and the leaders of political parties. "India's true story is the partnership of the people."
The position of president is largely ceremonial, but the 76-year-old Mr Mukherjee, who stepped down from his post as finance minister to run for president, would play a role in determining who forms the next government if elections in 2014 produce a hung parliament.
The presidency is also a bully pulpit, and Mr Mukherjee took immediate advantage of it to describe his rise from poverty and to condemn the prevalence of hunger in India.
"I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi," he said. "I was a boy when Bengal was savaged by a famine that killed millions. The misery and sorrow is still not lost on me."
The indignity of an empty stomach was not forgotten, either. "There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger," he said.
Before the swearing-in, Mr Mukherjee hewed to custom for presidents-elect and visited Raj Ghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi. To this itinerary, he added Shakti Sthal and Veer Bhumi, the memorials of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, respectively.
From there, he proceeded to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the Indian president, where Pratibha Patil, his predecessor, presided over her final guard of honour.
Accompanied by Ms Patil, Mr Mukherjee reached parliament slightly before 11:30am in his Mercedes limousine, the motorcade accompanied by a large unit of India's cavalry, the riders turbaned and attired in white.
Dressed in a simple black tunic and white pyjamas - the same attire worn of the first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, during his inauguration in 1950 - Mr Mukherjee took the oath of office from SH Kapadia, India's chief justice.
Mr Mukherjee chose the faith-based version of the presidential oath, pledging in the "name of God" to "faithfully execute the office of President of the Republic of India." The oath was followed by a 21-gun salute.
The new president appeared pensive as he descended the steps of Parliament House after the ceremony. For the first time in more than 40 years, one of the top leaders of the Congress Party was no longer an active politician.
Security forces stood on high alert as the presidential procession traversed central New Delhi, to and from the inauguration ceremony.
Around New Delhi, the Indian Air Force deployed an air defence shield to prevent threats to the city during the ceremony. Metro rail services at three Delhi Metro stations near Parliament House were also suspended for two hours. The inauguration was shadowed by PA Sangma, Mr Mukherjee's opponent in the presidential election, who is still weighing whether to the result in the Supreme Court.
Mr Sangma has contended that, contrary to election rules, Mr Mukherjee still held an office-of-profit - the chairmanship of the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata - at the time of filing his nomination papers.
The Election Commission dismissed Mr Sangma's allegation, and when he was declared the loser on Sunday, he had promised to decide by yesterday whether to appeal the decision through the courts.
"A few of our lawyers weren't able to make it yesterday, and we have time until August 21 to file our petition," Satya Pal Jain, Mr Sangma's polling agent and a member of his advisory team, told The National. "So we will take a final decision on this by Sunday or Monday."
The Supreme Court could rule Mr Mukherjee's nomination invalid and declare Mr Sangma the winner, Mr Jain said, adding that while no decision had yet been made to go to court, "we have a good case."
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg News