Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pranab Mukherjee Takes Over as 13th President of India: First Bengali To Become Head of State

Veteran Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee has become  13th president of India. He is the first person from West Bengal to occupy the top Constitutional post and the third MP to be elevated to the office of President after Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Zail Singh.

The presidential election was a one-sided affair. Mukherjee — who was sworn in by Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia on July 25 — secured 68.12 per cent of the total 10,47,971 value votes cast by 4,659 members of the State/Territorial Assemblies and Parliament. Opposition-backed candidate PA Sangma, who was supported by the NDA, the AIADMK and the BJD, managed only 30.15 per cent of the votes.

There were a total of 81 invalid votes, to the value of 18,221. These include that of Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose second ballot was invalidated by the Election Commission, for it violated the vote of secrecy.

Among the 748 Members of Parliament (excluding the nominated members who have no voting right) with the total vote value of 5,29,584, Mukherjee polled 527 votes (3,73,116) and Sangma got 206 votes (1,45,848).

There was some cross-voting in favor of Mukherjee in the BJP-ruled Karnataka: he got votes of 117 MLAs, against the BJP’s 103 in the 224-member Assembly. While three votes were declared invalid, one MLA did not vote.

In Kerala, Mukherjee made a clean sweep, polling all 124 votes; one was invalid. Sangma drew a blank. The CPI and RSP MLAs abstained from voting.

Only former President K.R. Narayanan, secured the maximum value votes of 9, 56, 290 (94.97 per cent), when he won in the 1997 election against the former Chief Election Commissioner, T.N. Seshan.

In the 2007 election, the outgoing President, Pratibha Patil, the first woman to hold the office, defeated the then Vice President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, securing 65.82 per cent of the total valid votes. Shekhawat polled 33.18 per cent.

Career Graph
Born on 11 Dec 1935 in Mirati village, Kirnahar disttricy, Birbhum (West Bengal), Mukherjee will embark on a new journey transcending political affiliations in the high Constitutional job with an ease none of his predecessors may have enjoyed because of his experience spanning 45 years in government and politics.

His election to the President's office today comes as a fitting finale for the veteran Congressman from West Bengal, until recently the troubleshooter of UPA, a task he has handled for the past eight years.

Not a lawyer by training but considered an expert in the working of the Constitution and governance, he was ever seen as the perennial 'No. 2' in government.

Mukherjee was a utility man from the days of Indira Gandhi, when he was the powerful Minister of State for Revenue during the Emergency, and later as Finance Minister in the 1980s.

His rise had been steady and such valuable was his contribution to government that his nomination as a Presidential candidate came after a huge dilemma for Congress party, which heads the UPA coalition that has moved from crisis to crisis in the past eight years.

The veteran leader, known for his photographic memory, had become a Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Parliament) member for the first time in 1969.

Mukherjee was for a long time member of the Upper House before his first direct election to the Lok Sabha in 2004 from Jangipur in West Bengal. He repeated his victory in the 2009 elections but had expressed a desire not to contest elections again in view of his advancing age.

Mukherjee was a top-ranking minister and presided over the Union Cabinet meetings in the absence of the Prime Minister during 1980-85.

Of course, Mukherjee had his own bad days in the Congress which he had to quit in the mid-80s after he had evinced interest in becoming the prime minister after the death of Indira Gandhi in 1984. It took some time before he came back into the party but once he was in, there was no stopping his rise once again.

Mukherjee became finance minister again in 2008 after P Chidambaram was shifted to the Home Ministry in the wake of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

Again his importance was seen when P V Narasimha Rao made him Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission as well as Minister of External Affairs. In between he had to quit because he ceased to be a member of Parliament and came back to the Cabinet after reelection.

Mukherjee started his public life in the 1960s in Bangla Congress during the time of former Chief Minister Ajoy Mukherjee of the United Front government when Jyoti Basu was Deputy Chief Minister in West Bengal. He was general secretary of Bangla Congress.

A post-graduate in political science and history, he can recollect any event of historical importance or mundane political and other events, a matter of envy to many of his colleagues.

Son of a senior Congress leader Kinkar Mukherjee from West Bengal, Mukherjee had done MA (history), MA (political science), and LLB, DLitt. He had a brief stint as lawyer, teacher and journalist before he was embedded to his destiny of politics in 1969, when he became a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Mukherjee, who headed 83 GoMs and EGoMs from June 2004 until recently, was Leader of the Rajya Sabha from 1980-85 and later he became Leader of the Lok Sabha. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is Leader of the Rajya Sabha.

When Mukherjee was Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh was appointed RBI Governor in 1982. In what could be described a case of chasing each other's shadow, Singh became Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission from 1985 to 1987, a post Mukherjee later held from 1991 to 1996, when Singh became Finance Minister in P V Narasimha Rao government.

Mukherjee also had a brief stint as Chairman of the Economic Advisory Cell of AICC between 1987 and 1989. Interestingly, Manmohan Singh also held this post, when Congress was out of power between 1999 and 2004.

Mukherjee, who started his career as a college teacher, always carried the traits of a teacher, never hestitating to give a reprimand or two to juniors whether in his party or the Opposition. He was also jocularly called 'GoM Mukherjee' in political circles as he headed 33 Groups of Ministers on various key issues including the recent one on setting up of Lokpal.

The man who headed Joint Committee on Lokpal that included Anna Hazare, Mukherjee has five books published to his credit on political and economic issues and under his editorial guidance, the history of Congress was published in which there was a candid admission of excesses during the Emergency.

Mukherjee was conferred the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1997. Ten years later, he was awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honor.

In Congress Party, Mukherjee became AICC treasurer in 1978. Journalists and AICC media department officials still recall Mukherjee's tenure as the Media Department Chairman of the party. Mukherjee was AICC General Secretary in 1998-99.

In 1984-1991, 1996 and 1998, Mukherjee was Chairman of the Campaign Committee of AICC, besides being a member of the Congress Working Committee and Congress Election Committee.

Mukherjee held all the key portfolios, including Defence from May 2004 to October 2006 and External Affairs from October 2006 to May 2009 besides the Finance portfolio, which he held again in 2009 after a gap of 27 years.

In the past, he also held portfolios like Commerce and Steel and Mines, Revenue and Banking (Independent Charge), Shipping and Transport, Industrial Development, Commerce and Supply besides presiding over a number of Parliamentary Committees.

Mukherjee got married to Suvra on July 13, 1957 and has two sons — Abhijit and Indrajit — and daughter Sharmistha. Abhijit is a Congress MLA in West Bengal.

Challenges in New Role
Mukherjee’s new role in Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s House) will be quite contrary to the one he has just finished playing. The most critical test for Mukherjee as President will no doubt come in 2014 after the general election to the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament). As in the past couple of decades, no one party is likely to get a majority of its own, and the bigger parties would have to depend on the support of alliance partners or new-found friends.

R. Venkataraman in 1989 and Sharma in 1996 followed the principle of inviting the leader of the single largest party to form the government. Rajiv Gandhi declined the invitation in 1989; Atal Behari Vajpayee accepted the invitation, but lasted as Prime Minister on that occasion for just 13 days. With these examples behind him, Narayanan insisted on letters of support from a claimant party’s allies before extending it an invitation to form the government.

Additional Qualities
Used to working long hours, he may have to find new outlets for his unbounded energy. Though it was apparent that the UPA had the numbers, 76-year-old Mukherjee campaigned tirelessly, moving from state to state, winning the support of even rivals in Karnataka, Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal. Reaching out to anyone and everyone who matters is a quality Mukherjee is known for. As president, he is expected to build bridges.

After being in the thick of politics for long years, will it be now Presidential activism for Mukherjee? Will he be able to rise above party politics in 2014 when the general election is expected to throw a split verdict? Since the Constitution is unclear about the formation of a government if no party gets a majority, the President is free to exercise discretion. In 1996 Shankar Dayal Sharma invited the BJP to form a government but it fell in 13 days as Atal Behari Vajpayee could not muster enough support. KR Narayanan, setting a precedent, asked for letters of support from the party staking the claim to form a government. How Mukherjee handles such a situation would be keenly watched. That may well be the defining moment for him.

Despite his personal religious observances — which are perfectly in consonance with India’s Constitution —Mukherjee is also a secular politician. One cannot imagine him chuckling with glee while the Babri Masjid was being vandalised or turning a blind ear to the cries of Muslims being massacred in Ahmedabad. As President, he may not be in a position to do either, but this is where a conversation with the late Giani Zail Singh, and what it revealed of British precedents, comes in.

Positive Points
* Constitutional expert: A Constitutional and governance expert, Mukherjee has always been seen as the perennial 'No. 2' in the government.

* Utility man: From the days of Indira Gandhi, Mukherjee's has been her trusted aide. He was the powerful Minister of State for Revenue during the Emergency, and later as Finance Minister in the 80s. For the past eight years, Mukherjee has been the Mr Troubleshooter for UPA.

* Photographic memory: The veteran leader is known for his sharp memory. He can recollect any event of historical importance or mundane political and other events, a matter of envy to many of his colleagues.

* Vast experience: With four decades of active life in politics, Mukherjee knows the Indian political system inside out.

It can be said that in Mukherjee, India will have a knowledgeable and pragmatic President who is well-versed in constitutional procedures and practices, and who was, until his nomination as a candidate by the ruling coalition, an active politician and senior Union Minister.

Mukherjee will be a President who could just as easily have been prime minister. There have been presidents who have come straight from the Union Council of Ministers, but none has carried the political weight and executive experience of this man from small-town Bengal. We have little doubt he will dignify the office he is about to step into and leave little room for narrow partisanship.

Unlike Pratibha Patil, who was out of active politics long before she became president, APJ Abdul Kalam, who was a genuinely nonpolitical person in the best sense of the term, and KR Narayanan, Shanker Dayal Sharma and R Venkataraman, who served as vice president before they entered Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee is making the switch from active politics and governance to the office of President in next to no time.

From the moment Mukherjee’s name was formally proposed by the UPA for the presidency, there was little doubt that the veteran Congress leader would sail through even in the event of a contest. As such, the result of the presidential poll between Mukherjee and Purno A. Sangma, who was backed by some regional parties and the BJP and some of its NDA allies carries no surprise. Given Mukherjee’s standing in public life, everyone expects him to be correct and proper in discharging his duties.

Undoubtedly, the former federal minister for finance, defense and external affairs has not only been one of the country's most important policy-makers in recent times but also that his long career in Government has allowed him to gain a deep understanding of the functioning of the Indian polity. This — an invaluable trait in today's era of coalition politics and tenuous political ties — naturally made Mukherjee the perfect choice as a firefighter of the UPA regime. Over the years, particularly in its second term, as the Congress-led UPA slid into an inert state of policy paralysis, becoming a sitting duck for the Opposition, it was Mukherjee who reached out to the critics, addressed their concerns and built the much-needed consensus.

It is hoped that Mukherjee will keep his promise to the nation and preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Good luck Mr President!

No comments: