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Is Pranab Mukherjee the right man?

Who will be the next president of India? Pranab Mukherjee is leading the race with the UPA nominating the current Indian finance minister as its candidate to take over presidency from the outgoing president, Pratibha Patil, whose term comes to an end next month.

In the meantime, A P J Abdul Kalam, a former president, has expressed his desire to be left out of the ugly race which has seen political gimmicking at its worst in independent India’s 60-odd years’ history.

Even the current prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who is serving his second term as  the leader of the world’s largest democratic country, did not remain immune to the political chaos that ensued and saw Dr Singh’s involuntary inclusion in the race to India’s highest office.

Finally, political sense prevailed as Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) took account of the upcoming general elections in 2014, and nominated Pranab for the job.

In country where the presidents lead a public life, yet receive apathetic attention from its citizens, the president of India is reduced to a ceremonial head of the state.

However, Congress is keen to have a loyal Congressman in the president’s office in 2014 when it will be looking for president’s support in the selection of the next prime minister. This seems to be a clever move by Sonia Gandhi who may have the intentions of putting her son, Rahul Gandhi, in the driver’s seat to run India’s political engine.

At no time since India’s independence in 1947 has the race of the presidential position been so highly debated. The debate is driven by the possible political uncertainty after the 2014 elections.

If Pranab Mukherjee takes over as the president, his departure will vacate the hot seat of India’s finance minister at a time when leading rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s and Goldman Sachs have expressed concerns about India’s weak economic outlook. Pranab has led important portfolios for India including that of finance and commerce, and while the economic performance of the country has been less than satisfactory, the country will struggle to find an equally capable replacement for Pranab.

It is difficult to say what Pranab feels about his nomination but it will not be surprising if he feels betrayed; he has seen Congress through major crisis and had his eyes well-set on the prime ministerial role, if the Wikileaks reports are to be believed. It must have been a tough decision for congress too to let go of its main troubleshooter.

While Pranab has strong credentials to be in the position of the president, the head of the state position carries very little power to introduce change. Pranab has been at the centre of action since he became the finance minister for the first time back in the 1980s; he is used to solving problems; he wakes up at 6am every day and goes to bed well after midnight.

He likes to be the problem-solver. As a president, he will be merely a dignitary invited for special events, attend state functions, and be the face of the nation where stately presence is a required as a matter of decorum.

It is gross injustice to reduce an illuminated career to a decorative position, with the intention of managing the competition for the prime ministerial position, while still retaining an influential Congress figure in a position that can influence the leadership structure after the next elections.

In the meantime, Pranab supporters are celebrating in the streets of Kolkata.

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