In Pranab Mukherjee, India will have a knowledgeable and pragmatic President who is well-versed in constitutional procedures and practices, and who was, until his nomination as a candidate by the ruling coalition, an active politician and senior Union Minister. Unlike Pratibha Patil, who was out of active politics long before she became President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was a genuinely non-political person in the best sense of the term, and K.R. Narayanan, Shanker Dayal Sharma and R. Venkataraman, who served as Vice-President before they entered Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mr. Mukherjee is making the switch from active politics and governance to the office of President in next to no time. The last time this happened was when Zail Singh moved out as Union Home Minister a month before becoming President in 1982. What this means is every action of Mr. Mukherjee in the discharge of presidential duties will be scrutinised for political partisanship. Under the Indian Constitution, the President has no executive role to play, but his or her actions — whether, for instance, in approving Bills or sending these back for reconsideration, or in forming a new government or in asking the incumbent to face a vote of confidence — have political import. The President is no rubber stamp, and is not required to sign on the dotted line irrespective of the issue at hand. While there are strict statutory limits to his discretion, his advisory or cautionary role is well recognised by the Constitution.
The most critical test for Mr. Mukherjee as President will no doubt come in 2014 after the general election to the Lok Sabha. As in the last couple of decades, no one party is likely to get a majority of its own, and the bigger parties would have to depend on the support of alliance partners or new-found friends. Venkataraman in 1989 and Sharma in 1996 followed the principle of inviting the leader of the single largest party to form the government. Rajiv Gandhi declined the invitation in 1989; Atal Bihari Vajpayee accepted the invitation, but lasted as Prime Minister on that occasion for just 13 days. With these examples behind him, Narayanan insisted on letters of support from a claimant party’s allies before extending it an invitation to form the government. While this looks like the most sensible approach after elections with a fractured mandate, in India there is no such thing as a settled convention. But historical precedents have a way of exerting a pull on the present. As President of India, Mr. Mukherjee would know how to fall back on traditions and conventions when necessary and when to look for fresh ways to break new impasses or constitutional deadlocks.