For real development to be achieved, “the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India,” Pranab Mukherjee said to a burst of clapping, shortly after he was sworn in as the 13th President on Wednesday in the historic Central Hall of Parliament. In a brief acceptance speech, Mr. Mukherjee placed “economic equity” above all the basic “fundamentals” of a modern nation — democracy, secularism, equality of every region and language and gender equality.
As he expanded on the theme of eliminating poverty, it did not go unnoticed among the gaggle of Ministers, Governors, Chief Ministers and MPs who packed Central Hall that Mr. Mukherjee, dressed in a black achkan and white churidar, took a gentle swipe at the economic reformers whom he left behind in the government that he was part of till recently: “Trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor,” he stressed.
A cohesive front
Wednesday’s political highlight was that even the warring elements of the United Progressive Alliance were present at the half-an-hour-long ceremony, presenting a cohesive front, a tribute to Mr. Mukherjee. While Nationalist Congress Party chief and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar sat in the front row, flanked by Ministers A.K. Antony and P. Chidambaram, two seats away from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee chose to sit, along with party colleagues, at the back, rather than towards the front, along with other Chief Ministers.
But as the newly sworn in President walked down the central aisle of Central Hall, in procession, at the end of the ceremony, Ms. Banerjee rushed out and positioned herself to congratulate him. Mr. Mukherjee stopped, smiled and returned the greetings.
The leaders of the two supporting parties, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Satish Mishra, were also placed in the front row alongside Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s wife Gursharan Kaur and the outgoing and incoming Presidents’ spouses, Devi Singh Shekhawat and Suvra Mukherjee.
Guardian of statute
In his speech, Mr. Mukherjee touched on all the contemporary themes, terrorism, need to universalise education and elimination of corruption. “Corruption is an evil that can depress the nation’s mood and sap its progress,” he said adding, “We cannot allow our progress to be hijacked by the greed of a few.”
But he also underscored the fact that his primary task was being the custodian of the Constitution: “The principal responsibility of this office is to function as the guardian of our Constitution. I will strive, as I said on oath, to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution not just in word but also in spirit,” he said. Acknowledging that the honour of becoming President “exalts the occupant of this office,” he stressed that it also “demands that he rises above personal or partisan interests in the service of the national good.”