President Pranab takes office

New Delhi: It was a day of pomp and pageantry, tradition and modernity as India Wednesday got its 13th President in 76-year-old seasoned politician Pranab Mukherjee, who pledged to rise above partisan politics in his conduct of the high office.

Mukherjee, attired in a black sherwani and churidar, was administered the oath of office by Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia at 11.28 a.m. inside the central hall of parliament.

Escorted by his predecessor Pratibha Patil, he went from Rashtrapati Bhavan to Parliament and then back to Rashtrapati Bhavan – this time as the first citizen – in a tableau of colour and ceremonial grandeur that has for decades marked this historic change of guard of democratic India’s top office.

The President’s mounted bodyguards, resplendent in their livery of white and with dark turbans to match, presented the national salute and 1,000 members of the three services lined along Raisina Hill for the ‘Hazar Salam’ or thousand salute to the President – the supreme commander of the armed forces.

As the President’s black stretch limousine with the mounted guards moving alongside moved slowly to Parliament House, it made for a regal sight. As did the visual of Mukherjee sitting in the horse-drawn Presidential buggy and taking the guard of honour in an open jeep.

Mukherjee, who till June 28 was India’s Finance Minister, looked serious throughout the ceremony and broke into a smile only when waving to camerapersons from the Presidential buggy.

In his first speech as President, Mukherjee, who has a five-year term, said his high office demands that he rise “above personal or partisan interests in the service of the national good”.

In a brief speech marked by high prose, Mukherjee said: “I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi.”

He also touched on corruption, terming it as an evil “that can depress the nation’s mood and sap its progress”.

Among the dignitaries present at the swearing-in ceremony were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, opposition leader L.K. Advani and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who decided to back Mukherjee’s candidature just two days before the July 19 poll.

Not far away from where Mukherjee was being sworn in, Team Anna began its indefinite hunger strike at Jantar Mantar against corruption and to demand a stringent Lokpal Bill.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent in his congratulations and “deep joy” to Mukherjee while Mamata Banerjee invited him to visit West Bengal.

The President’s elder sister Annapurna Banerjee, 83, sat glued to her TV set in her home in West Bengal watching her younger brother take oath. She could not attend the ceremony due to her old age.

In much of West Bengal, including Kolkata, there was joy at the first Bengali becoming the country’s President. Firecrackers were burst and buntings heralding the event put up in Kolkata.

Mukherjee moves into the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan from his official bungalow on Talkatora Road. He will henceforth travel in a long black bomb-proof Mercedes limousine – a far cry from the Ambassador car he used to travel in.

Mukherjee, who won the July 19 Presidential poll as the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) candidate, has been India’s Finance Minister, Defence Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, in his 40 years as politician.

He was a key member of the UPA and was chief troubleshooter for the coalition because of his excellent rapport with leaders of all political parties. He headed almost all ministerial panels with his vast fund of knowledge.