Congress party Pranab Mukherjee’s victory in the Indian presidential election this week allowed the party to exhale for a nanosecond amid the gloom of stalled economic reform and political paralysis. As the country watched the pomp and pageantry of the presidential swearing-in today, the tectonic plates of power in India started to shift again.

The Indian National Congress Party, the ruling coalition UPA’s majority stakeholder, has managed to rewind to 15 years ago. When Sonia Gandhi took on the presidency of the near-dead party in 1998, it resuscitated and took power; first in 2004, then 2009. It is now withering. Perhaps if Congress were not so weak, shrewd tactician Mukherjee would not have had the opportunity to take the presidency. It’s said that Sonia Gandhi doesn’t fully trust him, not since he was reported to have argued that he was the best person to succeed her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi when she was assassinated in 1984, rather than Indira’s son and Sonia’s husband, Rajiv Gandhi. He made no secret of his ambition over the four decades of his political career. But when it became clear after the UPA victory in 2009 that he would be denied what he considered his loyalty reward, he announced in 2010 that he would not serve in another government and in 2011 started a private campaign with Congress and non-Congress leaders to lobby for the presidential seat. By spring 2012, disenchantment with the party and with government leadership was gripping India. Congress – which is at its most bloodthirsty when its back is against the wall – turned to Mukherjee as an able consensus candidate who could save it from certain doom.

Sonia Gandhi understood the mood, so she set to work to out-manoeuvre fractious UPA allies and opposition parties, leading the presidential runner up, P.A. Sangma, to say that the UPA ‘did not genuinely build consensus’ and offered ‘inducements, threats and promises’ to get a win for its man.

What happens now is critical. For the president’s job is more than photo-ops, ceremony, and having the army chief fetch you a glass of water. Mukherjee could use his legendary trouble-shooting skills and broker a behind-the-scenes deal to break the political log jams that dog the UPA. And if the 2014 general election results in a hung parliament, he would have the power to choose which party could first try to form a coalition government. The Indian president can also play a diplomatic role, filling in for the prime minister, meeting foreign dignitaries and visiting countries that he doesn’t have time to go to.

But he needs to shed his party image and assume an independent role, that of a referee. He is not helped by his lack of charisma and oratorical ability; something I observed at a London press conference with George Osborne.  If he wants to end his career as a statesman, he will first need to acquire the moral authority of one.

Tags: India, International politics