India's political fixer set to become president

July 18, 2012 - 1:39 PM
India Political Fixer

FILE - In this Friday, July 13, 2012 file photo, Pranab Mukherjee, presidential candidate of India’s ruling alliance, wears a traditional headgear presented by Congress party members during his visit to meet Maharastra state lawmakers in Mumbai, India. 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 Thursday, July 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File)

NEW DELHI (AP) — India's political fix-it man is preparing to rise above the fray.

Pranab Mukherjee, who whipped coalition partners into shape and quelled scandals as the Congress party's chief firefighter for years, seems likely to leave all that behind and become India's figurehead president in an election Thursday.

"Eight years he has been under enormous strain. He has been carrying all the burdens of the government," said journalist Inder Malhotra, who has documented the Congress party leadership. "If he doesn't go for it now, he knows his time will pass."

Mukherjee, 76, has traveled the country for weeks to solidify his support in the 4,896-member electoral college, which includes all national and state legislators. And if Mukherjee can't corral votes, who can?

He appears to have locked a victory against opposition candidate Purno Agitok Sangma, with media reports predicting he will get more than two-thirds of the vote and even opposition party support, despite his widely criticized stint as finance minister.

The son of a Congress party official from West Bengal, Mukherjee entered Parliament in 1969 and quickly became a favorite 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 been foreign minister, defense 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.

Recent signs indicated the party's leaders felt Mukherjee — described by the U.S. 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.

"There was a sense that he was just not in a mood to listen. That proved to be a disaster," Barua 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. Though the presidency is mainly ceremonial, Mukherjee might find a way to use it to exert some influence. In the event of a hung Parliament after the next elections, he would have the power to choose which party could first try to form a coalition government.

In his decades in politics, Mukherjee has developed a reputation as perhaps the only politician in the paralyzed ruling party who can get things done.

He has headed more than two dozen Cabinet committees dealing with scandals and potential scandals, including how to conduct a sensitive caste census, what to do with the government's rotting grain and how to resell cellphone spectrum that courts ruled was sold off illegally.

Mukherjee came to the rescue last summer after other ministers fumbled the response to a popular hunger striker demanding sweeping anti-graft legislation that few lawmakers supported. Mukherjee got the activist eating again by using parliamentary maneuvering to make it appear lawmakers had caved in. A year later, the legislation still has not been passed.

When a telemarketer interrupted a negotiating session with the opposition to offer him a sweet deal on a home loan, the government sprang into action, adopting sweeping regulations on an industry that had been annoying ordinary Indians for years.

In recent weeks, he has struck a humble pose, apologizing to reporters for his prickly behavior, insisting the government had given him more than he could return, and deflecting praise for his work.

Mukherjee finally realized he was never going to be prime minister and opted instead for the next best thing — taking walks through the splendid gardens at the presidential palace, Malhotra said.

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