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India's 13th president takes helm in elaborate ceremony

NEW DELHI -- Political veteran Pranab Mukherjee pledged to fight widespread poverty and work to alleviate hunger as he was sworn in Wednesday as India's 13th president in an elaborate ceremony in Parliament.

The position of president is largely ceremonial, but Mukherjee would have a key role in determining who forms the next government in the event of a hung Parliament after elections in 2014.

The 76-year-old Mukherjee is a top leader of the Congress Party who resigned from his post as finance minister to run for president. He was elected last week by national and state lawmakers.

Mukherjee traveled to Parliament on Wednesday in a bulletproof limo escorted by an honor guard on horseback and security jeeps. His arrival was greeted by the blaring of bugles.

The Chief Justice of India's Supreme Court S. H. Kapadia administered the oath of office in the flower bedecked central hall of Parliament. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and Singh's Cabinet colleagues were present at the ceremony.

Soon after Mukherjee was sworn in, soldiers sounded a 21-gun salute amid loud applause from the hundreds of lawmakers who attended the event.

Mukherjee pledged to work for development and create opportunities for young Indians to rise out of poverty.

“For our development to be real, the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India,”' he told lawmakers. “We must lift those at the bottom so that poverty is erased from the dictionary of modern India.”

He urged lawmakers to focus on removing hunger from a country where nearly half of children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.

“There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor,” he said.

Mukherjee, who replaces Pratibha Patil, India's first woman president, will serve a five year term.

Mukherjee has been a Congress Party stalwart since 1969 and a key troubleshooter in managing its fractious coalitions.

At different times he has served as foreign minister, defense minister and finance minister, the latter twice.

His latest term controlling the finance portfolio from 2009 was marred by slowing economic growth, a weakened currency and rising inflation. India's economic growth of 5.3 percent in the last quarter was the slowest in nine years. Mukherjee's win in the presidential election comes as a boost for the ruling Congress party, under pressure due to corruption allegations against several ministers and demands that it take more action against graft.

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New Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, front, inspects a ceremonial guard of honor at the Presidential Palace after the oath-taking ceremony, in New Delhi, Wednesday, July 25. Escorted by the bodyguards in white uniforms, Mukherjee, 76, was sworn in Wednesday as India's 13th president in an elaborate ceremony. (AP)

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