NEW DELHI: Former Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, 76, was elected as the country’s president Sunday as he scored an emphatic victory over his rival to win the largely ceremonial post.
The veteran politician, a nominee of the ruling Indian National Congress Party, garnered a resounding 69 per cent of the votes cast by an electoral college of lawmakers.
He also scored more than double the votes of his rival, Purno Agitok Sangma, 64, a former parliament speaker backed by the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party.
Chief election officer VK Agnihotri, who declared Mukherjee elected as the new president, said the politician had collected 713,763 out of the electoral college’s 1.03 million votes. Sangma managed only 315,987 votes in the two-way contest. The electoral college comprises members from the country’s parliament and state legislative assemblies. They cast their ballots on July 19 to elect the nation’s 13th president.
A complex formula is used to weight the votes to give a balance between the population of each state and the number of votes of each representative.
“I express my deep gratitude to the people for electing me to this high office,” said Mukherjee, who has held key portfolios of finance, defence and external affairs in his 45-year political career. He added he would try to justify people’s trust.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi were among the first to congratulate Mukherjee as celebrations erupted outside his residence in New Delhi, with party workers dancing, bursting firecrackers and distributing sweets.
Mukherjee’s victory came after a month-long bitter campaign by Sangma, who attacked Mukherjee on various fronts, including his handling of the Indian economy, which is now struggling against slowing growth and high inflation.
As the results were declared, Sangma demanded a code of conduct for future presidential elections. He alleged that the election process had been ‘partisan’ with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance using financial inducements for states in the polls.
“I may have lost the election, but the nation has also lost a golden opportunity to show solidarity with tribals,” said Sangma, a Christian minority candidate representing a tribal constituency from the country’s north-east. The post of president in India is largely ceremonial, with all executive powers vested in the prime minister.
But the president plays an important role in political crises as the protector of the constitution, especially when general elections throw up hung parliaments and state governments. The president is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
Political analysts say the new presidency may prove crucial amid the country’s complex coalition politics, with neither the Congress or BJP expected to secure convincing majorities in 2014. In the likely event of a fractured mandate, it will be up to Mukherjee to decide which party has the numbers to form the government. Congress leaders also believe that Mukherjee’s election comes as a boost for their party, the credibility of which has taken a battering amid a series of corruption scandals and allegations of mismanagement of the Indian economy.
The new president will take over from Pratibha Patil, the first woman to hold the post. She completes her five-year term on July 25. AFP