As brand ambassadors go, India could not have plumped for a better president than Pranab Mukherjee. He was foreign minister when the country crashed into the club of nuclear power nations without compromising on a long-held policy of not signing the non-proliferation treaty. Before that, he was defence minister when India was realigning its security needs to accommodate the United States. He has been on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in his latest job as finance minister he has been intimately involved in the international effort to pick the pieces after the 2008 financial meltdown. Mr Mukherjee has won admirers across the globe. The present generation of world leaders know who they are dealing with when he calls on them over the course of the next five years as head of the Indian State. The welcome ought to be hearty.
Diplomacy’s gain is, however, policy’s loss. As finance minister, Mr Mukherjee was up against impossible odds on economic reforms. He could not free diesel prices; push through pension reform; allow foreign supermarkets into the country; or get the goods and services tax off the ground. He can now look upon the exertions of his successors in the full knowledge that his were not inadequate. Before he stepped down as finance minister, the president-elect was heading 24 of the 39 ministerial groups the Cabinet had farmed out decision-making to. He had the final say on issues as diverse as spectrum allocation, stake sales in State-owned companies, oil prices, highways, giant power projects and special economic zones. On our stand at the World Trade Organisation, fertiliser and aviation policy, administrative reforms, and even honour killings, corruption and paid news, Mr Mukherjee’s input was vital for the government.
The Congress stands to lose the most from Mr Muk-herjee’s elevation. He had distilled over 40 years of the party’s institutional memory spanning four prime ministers from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. And he would share it liberally, even if it were occasionally not received well. The party will now have to hunt for a fire-fighter who can match Mr Mukherjee’s acceptance across the political spectrum. His presence in Rashtrapati Bhavan will be particularly memorable if he can, within the limits imposed by constitutional propriety, soothe our fractious coalition-era politics.