NEW DELHI: India’s political fix-it man is preparing to rise above the fray.
Pranab Mukherjee, who spent years whipping coalition partners into shape and quelling scandals as the Congress party’s chief firefighter, seems likely to leave all that behind and become India’s figurehead president in an election tomorrow.
“Eight years he has been under enormous strain. He has been carrying all the burdens of the government,” said journalist Inder Malhotra, who has long documented the Congress party leadership. “If he doesn’t go for it now, he knows his time will pass.”
Mukherjee, 76, has spent weeks travelling the country to solidify his support in the 4,896-member electoral college, which includes all national and state legislators. And if Mukherjee can’t be counted on to corral votes, who can?
He is running against opposition candidate Purno Agitok Sangma but appears to have locked down victory, with media reports predicting he will get more than two-thirds of the vote, attracting support even from parties opposed to the government, despite his recent widely criticised stint as finance minister.
The son of a Congress party official from West Bengal, Mukherjee first entered Parliament in 1969 and quickly became a favourite of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But in a much disputed incident following her assassination, Mukherjee reportedly insisted that he — not her son Rajiv — should take over as prime minister.
He was sentenced to the political wilderness for years before eventually reclaiming his role as a top party leader. He has served as foreign minister, defence minister and finance minister twice. But the top job always eluded him because Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow and the current Congress leader, never forgave him for his impertinence three decades ago, said Malhotra, who has written extensively about the Gandhi family. There were recent signs that the party’s leaders felt Mukherjee — described by the US Embassy in a cable released by Wikileaks as “the ultimate Congress party fixer and operator” — might have run his course and could be doing more harm than good.
As finance minister since 2009, he was unable, or unwilling, to push through proposed reforms. Over the past year, growth has stalled, the rupee’s value has plunged and foreign investment has all but collapsed. His nadir might have been this year’s budget speech, when he announced a huge retroactive tax on overseas acquisitions and new rules to prevent tax avoidance that panicked foreign investors.
“There was a perception that he wasn’t in tune with changing times. He had been a very competent finance minister in the ‘80s, but the entire ballgame had changed,” said Abheek Barua, the chief economist at HDFC Bank.
Mukherjee’s stubborn response to business complaints that he was changing the rules midstream and making it difficult for investors to trust the government made things even worse, he said.
Immediately after Mukherjee resigned last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — the architect of the country’s 1991 economic reforms — took over the finance ministry. He implored top finance officials to “revive the animal spirit” in India’s economy, implying that Mukherjee had somehow suppressed it.
It is also possible Congress wanted a top man in the president’s house for a five-year term as a hedge against a poor showing in 2014 elections.