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Mukherjee will need to fight fires if declared India's president

Pranab Mukherjee is known as the ruling Congress party's 'firefighter'. If, as expected, he is declared India's president next week he will need all the experience that nickname implies in his new post.

India's ruling alliance candidate Pranab Mukherjee casts his vote in India's presidential election as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, along with other politicians, look on in New Delhi, yesterday.
India's ruling alliance candidate Pranab Mukherjee casts his vote in India's presidential election as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, along with other politicians, look on in New Delhi, yesterday.

NEW DELHI // Pranab Mukherjee is known as the ruling Congress party's "firefighter". If, as expected, he is declared India's president next week he will need all the experience that nickname implies in his new post.

Members of the state and central legislatures of India cast their votes yesterday in a separate vote to elect the country's 13th president. Nearly 5,000 legislators filed into voting booths in New Delhi and in state capitals to choose between Mr Mukherjee, who until recently was India's finance minister, and PA Sangma, a former speaker of India's lower house of parliament.

The president acts largely as a figurehead but the position becomes more crucial if no party wins a clear majority in parliamentary elections. Should this happen when India goes to the polls in 2014, Mr Mukherjee's experience will be crucial as it would be up to him to oversee coalition building and the formation of a new government.

Mr Mukherjee has been fielded by the ruling United Progress Alliance (UPA) coalition, which is headed by his party, the Congress. Mr Sangma is the candidate of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The results of this polling will be announced on Sunday.

Given the dominance of the Congress and its allies in parliament and in several state legislative bodies, Mr Mukherjee has been considered a shoo-in for the post ever since his candidacy was announced in mid-June.

Although the post of the Indian president is "by and large ceremonial", it has assumed greater importance in this era of coalition politics, said Chintamani Mahapatra, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"After a national election, if no single party can garner a clear majority, then the president's role is very crucial," Mr Mahapatra told The National. "It is up to his discretion as to which party he invites to put together a coalition and form the government."

Last weekend, speaking to the media in Chennai, V Narayanasamy, a junior minister in the prime minister's office, called Mr Mukherjee's win "a foregone conclusion".

At a media conference in Lucknow last week, Mr Sangma said that he was appealing to all parties, irrespective of political alliances, to vote for him.

"Everybody has a right to vote according to his conscience," he said. "Presidential elections are not held on the basis of political parties, it is above [any] political party."

A series of calculations, based on relative population sizes of states from the 1971 census, is used to determine the value of a legislator's vote.

Each legislator from Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, is worth 208 votes, while a legislator from the small north-eastern state of Sikkim is worth seven votes, according to data released by a New Delhi-based research body, PRS Legislative Research.

All the state legislators put together are worth 549,474 votes, which is nearly equalled by the weighted value of the 790 members of parliament, who are collectively worth 549,408 votes.

A candidate will require a minimum of 548,507 votes to become president, according to PRS Legislative Research. Mr Mukherjee is expected to attract well over 650,000 votes.

Mr Mukherjee, 76, who entered national-level politics in 1969, has also held several other ministerial posts including external affairs, transport, and defence.

Tarun Ganguly, a former Kolkata bureau chief of The Telegraph newspaper, said Mr Mukherjee had a reputation of being Congress's "firefighter… He has an immense capacity to say the right thing at the right time - I think he's an expert in it. He has maintained good relations with other parties."

When scandals or crises arose for the Congress, Mr Mukherjee was called upon to tackle them.

In that role, he has been in charge of organising a controversial caste census, revising food grain prices, pricing shares of public-sector companies that were sold to private investors, and reselling mobile telephony spectrum that was found to have been sold illegally.

But his latest tenure as finance minister has come under criticism for failing to tackle slowing growth and a widening fiscal deficit.

In an editorial published in late June, the financial daily Mint accused Mr Mukherjee of an inability to deliver on promises and said that his record was "one of missed opportunities… Whether it is taming inflation, reviving the growth momentum or initiating a serious fiscal overhaul".

Mr Sangma, who served as speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, from 1996 to 1998, also served as chief minister of his home state of Meghalaya between 1998 and 1990.

Subramanian Swamy, the president of an NDA constituent party called the Janata Party, has argued that the election to the presidency of Mr Sangma - a Christian and a member of Meghalaya's Garo tribe - would bring about a demographic satisfaction.

"There was a demand to make a tribal president, for which Sangma qualifies," Mr Swamy said in a statement two weeks ago. "Also, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs - all have been president. But Christians have never reached this post."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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