President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: the Man for All Seasons

President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee:  the Man for All Seasons

Former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (76) was sworn in as the President of the Republic of India with a colourful ceremony in New Delhi on 25th July. He is the first Bengali to become the President of India since its independence in 1947.

He arrived for the swearing-in ceremony in a regal cavalcade escorted by horse-mounted bodyguards and was greeted by a military guard of honour lining the route leading to the parliament building in New Delhi .

After receiving a 21-gun salute, Mukherjee addressed lawmakers and spoke of erasing poverty from the “dictionary of modern India ” and striving for equality for all.

“For our development to be real, the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India ,” he said. “There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor. We must lift those at the bottom.” ( India has al least 300 million ultra poor people while the number of billionaires is increasing).

Mukherjee also touched on corruption, a thorny issue that has dogged the Congress party government that he served in as finance minister until last month. “Corruption is an evil that can depress a nation’s mood and sap its progress,” he said. “We cannot allow our progress to be hijacked by corruption.”

The presidency is mainly a ceremonial role, but Mukherjee used his acceptance speech to appeal for India to prioritise the hundreds of millions of poor who have been left behind by recent economic growth.

The number 13, normally considered an unlucky number, is a lucky number for Pranab Mukherjee , India ’s 13th President. When asked about this figure playing a key role in his life, he said “I don’t have any superstition. I don’t believe in that. 13 is a lucky number. 13 means pure.13 (tera) is God.” Interestingly all major events of his life occurred on 13th, for example he was nominated as the President on 13th July.

Many Bengali people in India expected him to wear “Dhuti and Punjabi” while being sworn in as the President, but were disappointed to see him in “Sherwani and Pyjama” in the formal ceremony. He is understood to have decided to wear this formal dress in swearing ceremony for the office of presidency and it was reported that his youngest son- Indrajit- had it tailor-made from Mumbai a few days ago.

He was elected as the President of India with an overwhelming majority as the nominee of the Congress-led alliance. He has been very close to Indira Gandhi family since he joined politics in 1969.

He has been a trusted person of the Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi and it was Sonia Gandhi who is believed to be instrumental in nominating Mukherjee to the office of the presidency, rather than nominating Vice President Hamid Ansari.

The Indian president is not elected directly by the people but voted into office by lawmakers from both houses of the national Parliament and state assemblies. Votes by members of Parliament weigh significantly more: One of their votes is worth 708 votes cast by state-level legislators.

Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister and the head of the Trinamool Congress who initially was opposed to the candidacy of Pranab Mukherjee finally supported him two days before the election which took place on 19th July. Mamata Banerjee attended the swearing in ceremony of the President.

Mukherjee won a comprehensive victory with 713,937 votes out of a total of 1,029,924, beating former Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma, nominee of opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party, secured 315,987 votes, election official V.K. Agnihotri said 22nd July.

Although only five -feet tall, Pranab Mukherjee’s performance as a Minister in various portfolios, trouble shooter and his persuasion power with political adversaries is “ten feet taller” than any other politician in the Congress Party. He is known to be modest, affable and polite and could easily relate to a political opponent.

Under the constitution, the prime minister and the cabinet wield most of the executive power in India , but the president can send back some bills for reconsideration and also plays a guiding role in the process of forming governments.

However, the president can play a critical role in times of political crisis. If no one party secures a clear majority in general elections, the president can decide which party should try to secure the support of enough smaller parties to form a government.

Political analyst Sanjay Kumar at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank, says President. Mukherjee could “play a decisive role” in determining who forms the next government, with national elections due in 2014 and no party expected to secure a clear mandate.

Critics say that as a finance minister his role has been lackluster and India ’s economic growth fell to its lowest level. The government’s ballooning fiscal deficit has fueled inflation, forcing the Reserve Bank of India to ratchet up interest rates over the past couple of years.

The tightening crimped consumption and made credit costlier, leading to a sharp slowdown in the economy, which is projected to have grown 6.9% in the fiscal year ended March 31, well below the 9% growth the government hoped to achieve in the next few years.

He has been loyal to the Congress Party of Indira Gandhi and many people came and left the party but Mukherjee stuck to the Congress. Many analysts say that he has been awarded for his unflinching loyalty to the party.

Impact on Indo-Bangladesh relations:
As a veteran politician and associated as a Minister for a long period, he visited several times Bangladesh and had established close rapport with top Awami League leaders. His last visit was on 5-6th May of this year to attend the concluding session of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary celebration. During the visit, he announced that India would write off $200 million dollars of the one billion loaned to Bangladesh for various projects.

It is believed that his indirect influence and guidance as the President will have impact in continuation of mutually supportive policy in Indo-Bangladesh relations in the years ahead.

Bangladesh President and the Prime Minister sent their congratulations to President Mukherjee. We extend our heartiest greetings and wish him all well for the remarkable journey of his life.

His brief profile:
Son of Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee and Rajlakshmi Mukherjee, Pranab Mukherjee was born on 11th December, 1935 in a small village, Mirati of Birbhum District in West Bengal .

His father Kamada K Mukherjee was a respected freedom fighter and spent more than 10 years in British jails. Pranab’s father was an active member of Indian National Congress and was also a member of West Bengal Legislative Council from 1952 to 1964

President Mukherjee has close family connection with Bangladesh through his wife Shuvra who hails from Sadar upazilla of Narail district. He married Shuvra in 1957 and they raised two sons— Abhijit Mukherjee, Indrajit Mukherjee, a daughter– Sharmistha Mukherjee. (Abhijit is currently a member of the West Bengal Assembly).

Pranab Mukherjee joined the politics after being a college teacher, a journalist and a lawyer. He followed his father’s footsteps in joining the Congress Party and was elected to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Parliament) in 1969 before moving to the Lok Sabha (Lower House) in 2004.

His ministerial career begun in 1973 as the Deputy Minister, Industrial Development. After that he hardly looked back. He held a string of influential portfolios in the government including commerce, finance, defense and external affairs. He is regarded as the Congress party’s chief political fixer, who has spent years holding the party’s fragile coalition together.

It is worthwhile to note that former Chief Minister Late Jyoti Basu was being tipped as Prime Minister of India in 1997 but his party CPI (Marxist) made a historic blunder in not allowing him to secure the position.

In modern day politics in India , among Bengalis, late Jyoti Basu with his patriarchal stature in Indian politics commands great respect, while Mamata Banerjee is being tested now, Pranab Mukherjee would go down in history as the first Bengali to ascend the throne of President. However there is a view among Bengalis that Pranab Mukherjee missed the most coveted position of Prime Minister of India although he had served the Congress Party for the last 43 years.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva .

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