New Delhi (AFP): Former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee called for action to tackle India’s dire poverty as he was sworn in as president on Wednesday during an elaborate display of pomp and circumstance.
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.
Mukherjee, 76, 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.”
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.”
Mukherjee, the official Congress party candidate, was elected president on Sunday after winning 69 percent of the votes cast by national and state lawmakers.
Under the constitution, the prime minister wields 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.
This could be key in the next general election — due in 2014 — which is expected to produce a fractured parliament that will struggle to produce a stable coalition government.
Mukherjee has a cross-party reputation as a skilled negotiator, and was described by leaked US embassy cables in 2009 as “the ultimate Congress Party fixer and operator”.
Although respected across partisan lines, Mukherjee’s performance as finance minister was criticised for a sharp decline in the growth rate and his failure to push through policies aimed at further liberalising India’s economy.
His exit from the ministry has raised investors’ hopes that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has taken over the finance portfolio, would kickstart stalled reforms like opening the retail sector to foreign investment.
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