Pranab Mukherjee is India’s next President

New Delhi: Pranab Mukherjee, the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s key strategist and a long-time minister, was Sunday elected India’s 13th President by an overwhelming majority of MPs and legislators across the political spectrum, leaving his rival P.A. Sangma bruised.

One of India’s most experienced and canny politicians, Mukherjee, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) candidate, won the sweepstakes with a massive margin, bagging 713,763 votes, about 70 per cent, leaving Sangma way behind with 315,887 votes. Sangma projected himself as a representative of “tribals,” but his sales pitch simply did not work.

The president-elect, who has the unique distinction of holding key portfolios of finance, defence and external affairs in an eventful four-decade political career, was backed not just by partners of the Congress-led UPA but also by the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and Shiv Sena, which broke ranks with the opposition alliance.

Also endorsing the candidature of the veteran Congressman were the CPI-M, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Mukherjee takes over from Pratibha Patil, India’s first woman President. The swearing-in ceremony will be held in Parliament July 25, the day Patil moves out of the 340-room presidential palace and the 76-year-old Mukherjee moves in.

“I thank all the people of my country,” Mukherjee told reporters.

“And with the emotions and feelings that I have sensed in the common people revolving round this presidential election, it felt like it was not a presidential election but a general election,” he said.

Mukherjee’s victory was fraught with political significance in other ways too. In BJP-ruled Karnataka, there were reports of cross-voting though leaders said the BJP was united.

A bitter Sangma, a former Lok Sabha speaker supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party, AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal, accepted defeat, but called for a “code of conduct” for the presidential polls and said the election this year has been exceptionally “political”.

It is likely to be a political term too.

The widely held view was that Mukherjee, who could have been Prime Minister given his seniority in the government, would be the best person to handle post 2014 Lok Sabha election complexity.

“He (Mukherjee) knows the whole country (in the way) a non-political person cannot know. Post 2014 situation can be difficult, there should be a person who can handle the situation,” Sharad Yadav, JD-U chief and a key member of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), said.

For the Congress-led UPA, it was a moment to cherish. There were rejoicings and celebratory fireworks. All roads it appeared led to Mukherjee’s Talkatora Road residence.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi called on the president-elect.

Said a beaming Defence Minister A.K. Antony: “He will make a very, very good President.”

The parties began soon after the wooden ballot boxes were opened at Room 63 of Parliament House, and it became evident that Mukherjee would emerge the victor.

The Electoral College comprises MPs and legislators. There are 776 MPs; each MP’s vote equals 708 votes. There were 4,120 assembly members eligible to vote. The value of a legislator’s vote is variable depending on the population of the state the member represents.

Said Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit: “With his years of experience, Mukherjee will be one of the wisest Presidents.”

The exultation in the UPA ranks was matched by wild celebrations in Mukherjee’s village Mirati in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. People danced to drums and smeared ‘gulal’ on each other as their man made the transition to the country’ highest office.

Mukherjee, known in some circles as “Chanakya” for his shrewd understanding of the political world, is the first Bengali to be President of India. The archetypal enigmatic politician, he has given few insights into his personal life through his decades in public life.

Known to be a voracious reader and indefatigable worker who’s hard at work plodding through reams of files till midnight, he is married to Surva, a known Rabindra Sangeet exponent. The couple has two children.

“I can’t explain how happy I am,” said his elder sister Annapurna Devi.

She recalled her brother as being very mischievous as a boy. “He would tell me to wait, and I would have to keep standing… If I moved, he would pull my hair and tell me, ‘Didn’t I tell you to wait for me’,” she said.

Unfortunately, Annapurna Devi, 86, will be unable to attend the ceremony to see the naughty boy become India’s new President.