An ideal President is one who is a source of wise counsel to the Prime Minister, and resists the temptation of becoming a rival power centre

Today Pranab Mukherjee will be sworn in as the 13th President of the Indian republic. Somehow it is not easy to stub out a premonition that his presidency will end up creating a miasma of constitutional and political unhappiness. The troublesome thought recurs around an unaccustomed — and, essentially, unanswerable — question: can a 24x7 politician painlessly switch gears overnight to become a copybook constitutional head of the republic? Can a man joyfully steeped in the soul-crushing manoeuvres and wheeling-dealing of the Indian political stock exchange adjust to the unexcitement of the limited role the President is assigned in a parliamentary system? This question is rather pertinent in Mr. Mukherjee’s case. It is a new, if not odd, situation. Unlike any of his predecessors at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he not only selected himself but also quarterbacked his campaign, that too against heavy odds, especially in his own political party.

A well kept secret

It was one of the best kept secrets that Mr. Mukherjee was anxious — perhaps over-anxious — to be either Prime Minister or President. When, in January 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to be hospitalised for a heart operation, as the most senior Minister in charge of the government, Mr. Mukherjee ended up rubbing other colleagues the wrong way. That cameo did not endear him to the party leadership. Yet he continued to believe that his long innings as a faithful party apparatchik had entitled him to a shot at one of the two posts. There were enough friendly souls around to keep reminding him of his seniority, dating back to his days as Indira Gandhi’s Finance Minister. Once it was made clear to him that there was no vacancy at the office of the Prime Minister, he settled his sights on Rashtrapati Bhavan. It has been suggested that he was feeling jaded and overworked, and felt entitled to some peace and rest and to bask in the sunshine of ceremonial glories at the sprawling Mughal gardens.

Pranab Mukherjee was number two in the Manmohan Singh government these last eight years. He wielded enormous — some will say disproportionate — influence in how, when and what decisions the UPA government ended up taking and, perhaps, not taking. Now from the heights of involvement and instrumentality in decision-making, he has opted for a role in which he will come to resent that his talent and experience were underutilised and under-appreciated.

Over the years, Mr. Mukherjee has acquired a formidable claque. Like all political heavyweights in the capital, he too has chosen to have talented, ambitious and conspiring men and women around him who have a perfectly legitimate interest in his continued political prosperity. It is believed that the bulk of the cast of characters is likely to relocate itself in Rashtrapati Bhavan. They provide his comfort zone; they also help shape his thinking and priorities — just as they help him nurse long-standing grievances. The claque can become a clique and easily goad him into the Zail Singh corner.

Weak political wicket

Over the last two years, Mr. Mukherjee was on a losing political wicket. He picked up an unbecoming quarrel with Home Minister P. Chidambaram in full public glare. As the most senior Minister in the government, it was incumbent upon him to observe restraint; instead, he allowed his overzealous clique to create a public spectacle over some chewing gum. From then on, he was easy prey for scheming editors and other trouble-mongers masquerading as newsmen.

Like any other constitutional institution, the presidential office gets defined by the man and the circumstances. Mr. Mukherjee too will seek to reshape the office. However, it would be a sobering thought to remember that Rashtrapati Bhavan is not a rival centre of authority. There has always been a school of thought which wants to use the presidential office as the cat’s paw, sabotaging the elected government of the day. This was the temptation that prompted the unseemly campaign launched by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in 2007; some similar thoughts were at the back of the mind of those who choreographed the P.A. Sangma candidature. A presidential election is, no doubt, a contest with considerable political overtones; and, the electoral college numbers may or may not be comfortable to the Prime Minister and his support base in the Lok Sabha. But it is against the letter and spirit of the Constitution to inject the notions of an activist President, as the losing sides tried to do these last two presidential polls. This holds good for the winner as well as for the loser.

Nor is the President a referee in the routine disputes and arguments between the ruling party and the Opposition. After the National Democratic Alliance was voted out in May 2004, L.K. Advani and his fellow travellers almost made a habit of going up Raisina Hill all too frequently and presenting a memorandum of complaints against the UPA government; and then, with the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan in the background, the NDA leaders would suggest meaningfully that the President was in sympathy with their grievance. It made good television but needlessly dragged the head of the republic into unsavoury controversies. These trips up the Hill virtually ceased once Pratibha Patil succeeded Abdul Kalam. But for a while it was sought to be made out as if the President of the republic has yellow and red cards which can be shown to this or that presumably offending minister or even to a Prime Minister.

Tricky call

Above all, it should always be remembered that Rashtrapati Bhavan cannot be allowed to become a site of influence-peddling. That is a tricky call to make. Anyone who gets to occupy that resplendent building is bound, sooner or later, to feel the limitations of that office and then feel frustrated at the absence of patronage and pelf. It is not the occupant as much as his/her entourage that feels the pinch of absence of real power.

An ideal President is one who becomes a source of wise counsel to the Prime Minister; it is easier said than done. The Prime Minister must feel comfortable driving down to Rashtrapati Bhavan and the obligation of consultation should not become a joyless burden; just as the President must remember that the Prime Minister of the day has his share of political difficulties and constraints. If the President joins hands with the Prime Minister, the two can become a powerful source of constitutional and political wholesomeness. A President can help the Prime Minister ward off unhealthy demands of coalition partners. Or, similarly, the President can play a welcome corrective part in the matter of judicial appointments by the simple stratagem of keeping a dubious file pending, just as President Kalam once did.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent a President from insinuating himself into the political narrative, especially in this age of fractured mandates and coalition governments. At least Giani Zail Singh could be confronted with the possibility of an impeachment were he to cross the lakshman rekha; today, a President can easily succumb to the temptation of muddying the waters and dominate the news waves. The Indian republic finds itself at a crossroads when every institution is seeking to maximise its reach and influence at the expense of the executive. It would be doubly unfortunate if the Pranab presidency too allowed itself to become a source of political distraction. A word of caution is not out of place as President Mukherjee starts his much deserved relaxation in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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