Will Pranab Mukherjee be India’s new president?


New Delhi : If the speculation in political circles turns out to be true, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will be the new president of India.

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Although his name is among half a dozen talked about for the presidency, it is becoming increasingly clear that he is ahead of everyone else, not least because incumbent A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is unlikely to get a second term.

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has stated that Kalam has opted out of the race because no consensus could be built around his name.

And the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) does not want to insist on a second five-year term for Kalam since it had argued against a second tenure for K.R. Narayanan in 2002.

Political sources say that Mukherjee, one of India's most experienced politicians, could move into the Rashtrapati Bhavan if the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) manages to build a consensus around his candidature, earning in the process the support of the NDA as well.

In the case of Kalam, both NDA and UPA had agreed on the nuclear scientist.

Kalam lays down office in July. An electoral college of MPs and state legislators will elect a successor. The electoral arithmetic gives the ruling UPA a slight edge.

Among the UPA's major allies, the Left has indicated its support to Mukherjee. His West Bengal connection – a state the communists have ruled since 1977 – makes him a known actor despite their political and ideological differences.

It is clear then that the Left is no mood to push forward the candidature of Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.

Some of the southern constituents of UPA had sought a second term for Kalam, a Tamil. But with Kalam opting out, their preference is of no consequence any more.

Mukherjee's choice does not exactly respond to the preference for a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh, expressed by new Chief Minister Mayawati, who has emerged as a significant player after her electoral triumph in the state.

But Congress sources believe that Mayawati may ultimately extend her backing to Mukherjee since she is not looking for a confrontation with the central government on any issue.

Among the UPA constituents, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had reportedly sought to support Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. But ultimately NCP too would be part of UPA's collective decision.

As for Mukherjee, he fits the bill in many ways, thanks to his four decades in political arena and vast administrative experience.

He has headed the ministries of commerce, industry, finance, defence and now foreign affairs and represented India in several international forums. His image fits in with India's current pace of economic progress.

Perhaps the only hurdle in the way of Mukherjee's nomination for the country's highest post is party president Sonia Gandhi's seeming reluctance to 'retire' the senior-most minister in the UPA government.