In his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, President Pranab Mukherjee seemed intent on tempering hope with caution and idealism with pragmatism. But what caught everyone’s attention was the political undertone of what he himself noted was his last address before the next government takes office. For someone who made a smooth transition from being a Cabinet Minister to becoming the President, Mr. Mukherjee was surprisingly forthright in his warning to the political class. Justifying people’s anger at the weakening of democratic institutions, he said: “If we hear sometimes an anthem of despair from the street, it is because people feel that a sacred trust is being violated.” For those looking for a warning to the Congress, Mr. Mukherjee had more than a few words on corruption. If Indians are enraged, he said, it is because they are witnessing corruption and waste of national resources. “If governments do not remove these flaws, voters will remove governments.” But the veiled attack on the Aam Aadmi Party, the reference to “populist anarchy”, now associated with its leader Arvind Kejriwal, captured more mind space. Arguing that populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for governance, the President said: “False promises lead to disillusionment, which gives birth to rage, and that rage has one legitimate target: those in power.” If the reference to communal forces is taken as thumbs down to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Mukherjee appears to have spared none in his address.

Whether read as notes of caution to the Congress, or as articulation of dissatisfaction with the ways of the AAP or the BJP, these remarks assume added importance in the current political context. President Mukherjee clearly wants it to be known that he is on the side of the people and democratic institutions, not blindly supportive of governments and certainly not sympathetic to those in power. Curiously, Mr. Mukherjee also wanted the people to vote in a stable government. True, as he noted, a fractured government, “hostage to whimsical opportunists,” would be an unhappy electoral outcome. But to ask the people to vote for a stable government can mean little more than to ask them to vote for a party widely seen as the front-runner. Whether this could be taken as an endorsement of the BJP in the current context is debatable, but it could lend itself to interpretation. So far, Mr. Mukherjee has played by the book in what he has done and what he has not, as President. The political sub-text of his lines and their varying interpretations notwithstanding, the address provides no indication that he is about to change his approach as the President of the Republic.

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