x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pranab Mukherjee emerges as front-runner to become 13th president of India

No other strong contenders have emerged in the contest against the diminutive finance minister.

Pranab Mukherjee, right, is welcomed with a garland at a Mumbai seminar on June 16.
Pranab Mukherjee, right, is welcomed with a garland at a Mumbai seminar on June 16.

NEW DELHI // Popular among his colleagues but not a populist, India's finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has emerged as the front-runner to be the 13th president of India.

No other strong contenders have emerged to contest against the diminutive Mr Mukherjee, 76, after his party, the Congress, nominated him as their candidate for the July 19 elections. If he wins, it will mark an end to a distinguished political career.

The role is largely ceremonial but, after general elections, the president can select the party or parties to form a government. That power may come into play in 2014 as neither of the two main parties - Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party - are expected to win convincing majorities. The Indian president is chosen by an electoral college that comprises the members of both houses of parliament as well as all the members of the state legislatures - nearly 4,900 people, in total. Indian presidents have never ventured back into political life after their retirement.

"In running the government, Mr Mukherjee has been my most valued colleague," said Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, last December, presenting Mr Mukherjee with The Best Administrator in India award for 2011. "There are few people in our politics today who can match his long and exemplary record of public service."

Mr Mukherjee's parliamentary career stretches back to 1969, when he was nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha - the upper house of India's parliament. Since then, he has served as finance minister several times. At various other points, he has been minister for defence, external affairs, transport, and communication.

Only in 2004 did Mr Mukherjee win a popular election. "He isn't a mass politician that way. He can't connect to the crowds," said one Congress party member who knows Mr Mukherjee.

Born in Birbhum district in the state of West Bengal, Mr Mukherjee studied history and political science at the University of Calcutta, before going on to work first as a teacher and then as a journalist.

In 1967, Mr Mukherjee was a young officer of the Bangla Congress, which had broken away from the main Congress party and which was part of the coalition governing West Bengal. "The Bangla Congress must have thought: 'This fellow can speak English, he has studied political science, so let's send him to the Rajya Sabha'," said Tarun Ganguly, a former Kolkata bureau chief of The Telegraph newspaper.

In New Delhi, Mr Mukherjee rapidly caught the eye of Indira Gandhi, and as the Bangla Congress disintegrated, he rejoined the Congress party in 1970.

Ms Gandhi would subsequently give Mr Mukherjee his first finance ministry in 1982. That year, when he presented his first budget for an hour and 35 minutes, Ms Gandhi remarked: "The shortest finance minister has delivered the longest budget speech."

The key to Mr Mukherjee's longevity in politics, Mr Ganguly said, has been his willingness to improve himself. "He comes from a village, and he went to a village school, not some highfalutin' institution," he said. "You can even tell that from his accent now."

But Mr Mukherjee is a voracious reader, Mr Ganguly observed, and he has "tremendous concentration powers and a memory like an elephant's".

He derives his pleasures from work, Mr Ganguly said.

"He has acquired a reputation as the Congress party's firefighter," he added. "And somehow, he has maintained good relations with other parties, because he isn't overbearing. He listens more than he talks."

Mr Mukherjee's nomination has not escaped opposition entirely.

The chief minister of his home state of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, still refuses to endorse his candidature, even though her party is a coalition partner of the Congress in the central government.

On Monday, another voice of dissent emerged from Arvind Kejriwal, one of the leading lights of the India Against Corruption movement, which has gathered strength over the last two years.

Mr Kejriwal pointed out that some corruption allegations against Mr Mukherjee have not yet been resolved - notably in a 2005 Scorpene submarine deal between India and France, signed when Mr Mukherjee was defence minister.

In 2006, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party claimed, in parliament, that the deal - worth 188 billion rupees (Dh12.33bn) - earned unnamed middlemen in the Congress party a four per cent commission. Mr Mukherjee refused to order an investigation into the affair at the time.

Mr Kejriwal has called for an inquiry to begin ahead of Mr Mukherjee's confirmation as president, noting that once he is installed as president, he will be granted judicial immunity, which would impede further investigation.

"The probe should be conducted by an independent agency," Mr Kejriwal said in a statement. "The post of the president is the most dignified, and anybody considered for the post should carry a clean image. Whatever be the allegations against Mukherjee, they must be probed."

Having reached the highest echelons of Indian politics, the Congress party member said Mr Mukherjee may feel some regret that he never became prime minister.

"Frankly, I think he had harboured thoughts of being prime minister at one stage," he said. "But he must have figured that in the elections in 2014, the Congress may not come back to power, and that he would be too old to wait for the 2019 elections."

"In the final analysis, I think he would have figured: 'The presidency is still the presidency'," he added. "He would still be head of state, the first citizen of India."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae