Pomp and ceremony are part of the making of all States, even democratically run nation states. This morning, India, a proud republic, will witness a grand ceremonial occasion when a new president of the republic is sworn in. The grand house on Raisina Hill will have a new occupant and the name of Pranab Mukherjee will be added to the roll-call of honour. Little else will change: the pomp and ceremony of the oath-taking, in a sense, mark a continuity. The office of the president of India, notwithstanding the aura that surrounds the head of State, is, from the point of view of running the government, largely ceremonial. The task and responsibility of governing are clearly vested in the office of the prime minister. The Constitution makes a distinction between the head of State and the head of government. The Constitution makes the role of the president advisory: he can make suggestions to the prime minister and advise him in camera. The office of the president is thus both an easy and a difficult one to assume: easy because his role is dictated by protocol and his advice is heard only in private; difficult because it involves being seen and not heard in public.
The question that continues to bother most students of the Indian Constitution is why the founding fathers decided to create this distinction between the head of State and the government, and thus have a president of the republic without substantive powers. Clues to the answer probably lie in the choice the founding fathers made to follow the Westminster model, where a similar distinction prevails. The Westminster model was, however, historically determined since it implanted a democracy on a monarchy. According to that model, the monarch is the head of State and the prime minister the head of government. The monarch advises the prime minister. The Indian republic, for obvious reasons, could not have a monarch, hence the creation of the office of president. This was not a wholly satisfactory solution but it is one that has worked for the republic for over 60 years. The fact that it functions cannot be the intellectual justification of an office. As a new president takes office, the wise men of India could perhaps begin to think about the intellectual grounds for the office of president. A democracy and a republic both remain vibrant through self-questioning and debate. It is never too late to start.