NEW DELHI (AFP): Powerful politician Pranab Mukherjee looked set to be elected India’s new president and analysts said the canny veteran could play a key role in steering the nation through testing times.
Mukherjee, 76, a loyalist of the ruling Congress party, was the overwhelming favourite for the post of head of state after drawing broad support over rival Purno A. Sangma, 64, a former parliamentary speaker.
Despite his belief, expressed last month, that “this office is to be offered and not to be sought”, Mukherjee has made a robust effort to win the support of diffident Congress allies and opposition politicians on the left.
The Congress-led alliance has claimed Mukherjee will win around 70 percent of the total vote.
The president is chosen by 4,896 state and parliamentary lawmakers and Mukherjee’s success would mark a welcome victory for the embattled Congress, which is struggling with a string of graft scandals and a slowing economy.
The lawmakers cast their votes late last week and results from the counting were due at 5:00 pm local time (1130 GMT) on Sunday.
Famously just five-feet (152 centimetres) tall, Mukherjee — who uses a stool to be seen over podiums — has long been Congress’s firefighter, leaving many wondering how the party will cope without its “political Mr Fixit.”
But analysts say he may be called on to play an even more influential role as president. Under the constitution, the prime minister wields most of the executive power but the president can play a vital part in forming governments.
Mukherjee, who resigned as finance minister to seek the presidency, could “be the kingmaker”, said analyst T.K. Tripathi.
With the upsurge of regional parties in an increasingly fractious political landscape and the possibility of a hung parliament after the 2014 elections, he could have a pivotal role in deciding the next government, analysts say.
“It’s in this turbulent scenario Mukherjee as a president will be able to steer the ship of the state. He’s a troubleshooter,” said Sanjay Kumar, analyst at India’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
The presidential palace’s current occupant, Pratibha Patil, 77, India’s first woman president, has kept a low profile and cut a conservative figure with her sari pulled over her hair.
Mukherjee, who speaks English with a heavy Bengali accent and is affectionately called “Pranabese” by his colleagues, was born in a West Bengal village and worked as a teacher and journalist before entering parliament in 1969.
The workaholic politician is married with two sons and a daughter. He is a staunch champion of “inclusive growth” — that India’s teeming poor should share in its rapid development.
While he commands cross-party political respect, his performance as finance minister was panned when he failed to push through controversial measures to open up India’s still largely closed economy.
His exit from the ministry has fired investor hopes that the government could embark on long-awaited market reforms such as fully opening up the giant retail sector to foreign investment to ease India’s food-chain supply problems.
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