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ELDER STATESMAN
- The president’s first Republic Day address to the nation

Those with a taste for historical fiction and counter-factual history may well find The Windsor Faction by the British writer, D.J. Taylor, published last year, quite absorbing. Set in the England of the nine months or so of the “phoney war” of 1939-40, it probes the fantasies and amateurish conspiracies of the small set — with a larger measure of public support — that sought to prevent a repeat of the Great War of 1914-18 by facilitating a negotiated settlement with Germany.

Although much of Taylor’s brilliantly crafted exploration of the British upper-crust support for Hitler is based on actual events, there is a significant departure from the historical script. The Windsor Faction begins with the description of a quiet funeral in a village church in December 1936: the funeral of Wallis Simpson. “It is neither disloyal, nor merely callous,” said an imaginary editorial in The Spectator, “to suggest that if Mrs Simpson’s unlooked-for passing has not saved a nation from disaster, then it has…saved His Majesty from himself.”

In an England where the abdication of 1936 was fortuitously averted by the death of the American divorcée, the declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939, saw Edward VIII still on the throne. The king isn’t too enthusiastic about a war to protect a distant Poland. To him, as with many Britons of his class, the real enemy is Bolshevism. Yet, the king is a constitutional monarch and must do what the government tells him to do. There is precious little scope for the monarch to speak his mind publicly.

In Taylor’s story, the king detects a small window of opportunity: his traditional live Christmas broadcast to the Empire. With the aid of a dandyish journalist, Beverly Nichols (who in real life wrote an astonishingly controversial repudiation of the Indian nation in Verdict on India), the king plots to deviate from the script that had been vetted by his Palace minders and Whitehall. As the live broadcast from Windsor proceeds, Edward Windsor slyly inserts a paragraph into his speech: “This, we are told, is a war to defend the interests of those who cannot defend themselves. But might not those interests be better defended by war’s cessation?” The monarch says that he can’t answer these questions. “They are for governments, for the democratically elected representatives…to consider. But I put it to you that they should be considered, that the duties which lie before us may not be as straightforward as they seem to be…”

For history buffs, Taylor accurately anticipates the consequences had Edward VIII actually made such a Christmas broadcast. He crafts an imaginary Daily Telegraph editorial that confronts the issues with characteristic tact and circumspection. Did the king exceed his constitutional brief? No, because “the King’s Speech is one of the few occasions on which the Sovereign is permitted — in fact encouraged — to express a personal opinion.” But, should the king have said what he did? “The gap between what a man may say in private and what may decently be uttered on a public platform is known…In supposing such a gap not to exist, the King has not only — albeit inadvertently — offered comfort to our enemies.”

The invocation of an imaginary royal indiscretion by a monarch who in real life put emotion above the call of duty may appear a self- indulgent diversion. But the controversies that arise as a result of a ceremonial head of state deviating from both homilies and anodyne comments are real. Indeed, in the context of President Pranab Mukherjee’s first Republic Day address to the nation, it assumes a contemporary relevance.

To begin with, there is the vexed question as to whether the Republic Day address — as opposed to the speech he delivers at the opening of Parliament — is the president’s own or reflect the views of the government. The Constitution deems that the head of state is guided by the advice of his council of ministers. In practice, this does not imply that the president is entirely a rubber stamp, deprived entirely of his right of independent observation. By convention, a draft of the president’s speech on a national day is sent to the cabinet secretary. Yet, there is no known case of a government modifying the draft. As with the British monarch’s Christmas Day broadcast, the president speaks his mind with the necessary dose of circumspection and understatement. This is all the more relevant in the context of President Mukherjee. Along with Rajendra Prasad and R.Venkataraman, he is the only person who came to Rashtrapati Bhavan after having occupied the most important political posts. There have been other politicians who became president, but their experience of public life was nowhere as significant as that of the present incumbent. What President Mukherjee thinks bears the hallmark of both experience and erudition.

This Republic Day, some eyebrows were raised by two of the president’s more political observations. First, he suggested that “elections do not give any person the licence to flirt with illusions. Those who seek the trust of voters must promise only what is possible. Government is not a charity shop. Populist governance cannot be a substitute for governance.” Quite predictably, and given the shenanigans of Arvind Kejriwal on the streets of Delhi just three days before, the warning against reckless populism was seen as an indictment of the Aam Aadmi Party. It was certainly viewed as such by the AAP leadership and by its supporters.

Secondly, the president spoke about the yearning of Young India for opportunities and a better life. However, he argued that “this chance will not come if India does not get a stable government…A fractured government hostage to whimsical opportunists, is always an unhappy eventuality. In 2014, it could be catastrophic. Each one of us is a voter; each one of us has a deep responsibility.”

This grave warning of the implications of a weak government was well-intentioned. Yet, coming as it did in the backdrop of opinion polls suggesting that the Narendra-Modi-led National Democratic Alliance had clearly outpaced its Congress opponents, there were whispers that the president was arguing that the duty of the citizen lay in bolstering the front-runner and giving it an unequivocal mandate. In another context, it may have been read as an encouragement to the Congress but with anti-incumbency sweeping the country, the president’s message must have been music to the ears of the Modi camp.

Till a year ago, President Mukherjee was an over-active politician, well respected on all sides of the political divide. It is against his nature to fall back on meaningless platitudes and homilies. He wants to remain relevant, not perhaps in an intrusive way but as a wise elder statesman. His remarks were not calculated to offend but to counsel all those who have a stake in the future of India. Most important, the sentiments he expressed found a positive echo in much of India. At the same time, his observations were jarring to those who imagine that they have given direct democracy a new meaning and those who believe that the only meaningful objective of the coming election is to stop Modi at all cost.

National consensus can only be achieved in a united country. At Christmas, 1939, Britain was confronted by an existential dilemma: to fight or to maintain an Empire and a way of life. In 2014, India is troubled by indecision over whether to look back or move forward. The uncertainty imposes an additional obligation on the head of state to speak his mind, albeit in code.