Mukherjee, 76, is competing against Purno A. Sangma, 64, a former speaker of Parliament's lower house, with vote counting slated for July 22.
The president, chosen by state and federal legislators voting in a 4,896-member electoral college, commands the armed forces, helps create a new government after a hung Parliament and in rare circumstances can send bills back to lawmakers. In reality, much of the job involves representing the country on overseas trips and making ceremonial appearances and speeches on national holidays.
For Mukherjee, a longtime problem-solver for the ruling Congress Party, becoming president would elevate him above the fray of daily coalition politics into a statesman role.
"Once he knew he couldn't be prime minister, it's best to be president despite its ceremonial nature," said Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper. "You're remembered forever, you get your picture here and there, you're one of 50 or 100 names that are remembered."
Mukherjee has been a leading politician and a Congress Party fireman, leading to concern that his elevation could leave a vacuum as the government battles inertia, corruption scandals and declining popularity. The former teacher and journalist has served over the years in India's foreign, defense, commerce and steel ministries.
But others said his departure might also force the government to reach into its ranks, make more overtures to coalition partners and better resolve internal policy differences.
The new president will succeed Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who presided over a relatively unremarkable five-year term that ends July 24. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister in the 1990s oversaw the opening of India's markets, is assuming the finance portfolio vacated by Mukherjee.
The business community will be watching closely for indications that Singh could step up the pace of economic reform. "So far, he's responded to problems by creating committees," Gupta said. “Within the next few weeks, we’ll see if these are just putting off decisions, or so the committees can carry out his ideas.”
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Senior Indian political leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, center, watch as presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee casts his vote for the largely ceremonial job in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: Prakash Singh /AFP/Getty Images