NEW DELHI: By all accounts, ruling Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi does not trust the man she nominated on Friday to become the next president of India, Pranab Mukherjee. But with her party facing tough elections due by 2014 he may be her ace in the hole.
Until now, India’s president has been viewed as a ceremonial head of state. But with the next elections widely expected to produce a fragmented parliament with no clear winner, Mukherjee, a loyal Congress man, will play a key role in deciding which party takes the lead in forming a new government.
Perhaps more importantly, Mukherjee, 76, now finance minister, could help the Gandhi family keep its grip on power.
Sonia’s son, Rahul, is a leading contender to become prime minister in any new Congress-led coalition. As president, Mukherjee would have a say in who gets that job.
Mukherjee was nominated by the Congress party in the face of opposition from a key ally within the ruling coalition. The party, however, won support from other coalition partners for its choice and appeared confident that Mukherjee would win the electoral college vote on July 19.
Analysts say Mukherjee could play an influential role in steering the country through potentially one of the most politically turbulent periods in modern Indian history.
With neither of the two main parties – Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – expected to win convincing majorities in 2014, a fragile coalition that includes several regional parties could emerge to claim power.
In that scenario, Mukherjee, famed for his political acumen, could as president exercise more authority, taking advantage of a vaguely worded constitution.
His departure from the finance ministry appears unlikely to lead to major changes to economic policy, which is still dominated by Sonia and other party leaders who, Standard & Poor’s said last week, fear reforms that could cost them votes.
Mukherjee has served as finance minister, foreign minister and commerce minister twice and also as defence minister. He chairs most of the cabinet committees tasked with making recommendations on important issues. But the job he has always wanted – that of prime minister – has eluded him.
A confidential cable from the US embassy in New Delhi to Washington on Oct. 24, 2006, described him as “extremely ambitious” and said Sonia and other Congress leaders “remain suspicious of him and do not want to provide him with an opportunity to push (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh aside.”
He was passed over for the premiership in 2004 by Sonia in favour of Singh and lost out on the post of interior minister, one of the most senior cabinet jobs. Sonia feared he might use it as a platform to campaign against the politically weaker and unelected Singh, according to the US cable obtained by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.
Mukherjee, a veteran of four decades in politics, has been called the Congress party’s chief trouble-shooter, crisis manager and even a modern-day Cardinal Richelieu, the clergyman who was the powerful right-hand man to French King Louis XIII.
When his name first surfaced as a potential candidate for the presidency, a Congress spokeswoman said he was too indispensable to the party, but media reports suggested Sonia was uneasy about installing a man in the presidential palace who was unlikely to prove as compliant as his predecessors.
Her unease can be traced back to the assassination of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.
Mukherjee, then finance minister, was asked by party colleagues who should step in to fill the power vacuum. He replied that according to the constitution it should be the second-most senior person in the cabinet, a close aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity that still surrounds the episode.
Traditionally, India’s finance ministers have been viewed as the No. 2 in the cabinet. Mukherjee’s answer fuelled suspicions about his ambitions. Indira’s son Rajiv, who was sworn in as prime minister hours later, ejected him from the party in 1986. The two reconciled and Mukherjee returned to Congress in 1988.
Mukherjee is lauded for his ability to reach across party lines, but critics say as finance minister he has been too complacent, failing to rein in spending on fuel, food and fertilizer subsidies and win cross-party support for reforms to boost flagging economic growth.
Since delivering his latest budget in March, he has also come under fire for his tough stand on tax proposals that scared off foreign investors and insistence that the euro zone crisis is largely to blame for the economy’s woes. Economists say policy inertia at home is also a major factor.
It is common knowledge that Mukherjee has grown tired of the day-to-day politics of a divided coalition government that has failed to implement any major economic reforms since coming to power in 2004.
In a recent interview with Reuters at his modest government bungalow in the capital, Mukherjee was characteristically circumspect about his ambitions and the role of the new president, but his answer hinted at a more proactive approach were he to get the job.
“The president will have to apply his mind according to the constitution. He has the right to be informed and be advised by the government,” he said.
It was close to midnight and Mukherjee, seated behind a desk piled with files, was tearing open envelopes and reading them as he responded to questions. On a wall behind him was a sepia-coloured picture of his mentor, Indira.
Age has dimmed neither his ambitions nor his stamina. He wakes at 6 a.m. and does not go to bed until 2:00 a.m. He eats dinner, usually a dish of fish and rice, around 1:30 a.m.
In April of 2007 at the age of 72, when he held the post of foreign minister, his official car crashed head-on with a truck in West Bengal state. Mukherjee sustained head injuries that required stitches, but was back at work within days.
Every night, he makes a new entry in his diary, just as he done for the past 50 years.
A secretary said he planned to leave the diaries to his daughter. Many, both friends and foes, will likely be hoping that the jottings of a man who has never been far from the centre of power during his decades in politics stay unpublished.