By deciding not to vote this time, the president, Pranab Mukherjee, obviously sent out a signal that he wanted to keep his office above party politics. The gesture makes eminent sense, even if it is a symbolic one. Not just the president of the republic, but governors of states and others holding high constitutional offices should cease to have any political role or activity the moment they assume such responsibilities. But Mr Mukherjee’s decision to not exercise his franchise, though laudable, is only a small step. The president, and governors of states, must accept the fact that their offices are purely decorative — like flowers in a vase. One could even argue that these positions are completely out of place in a mature democracy. The fact that the Indian Constitution provides for such offices is entirely due to the country accepting the Westminster model in a rather unthinking manner. There are historical reasons, especially the political situation prevailing in the post-Oliver Cromwell period, as to why Britain opted for a constitutional monarchy. In India, on the other hand, the constitutional heads are an aberration from the representative character of the government. Until this anomaly is removed, the people in such offices should restrain themselves from usurping powers or functions that are not theirs.
Mr Mukherjee may have walked into the trap by assuming that he had a particular role in the formation of the new government. He was reported to have consulted constitutional experts on what he should or should not do in the event of the elections throwing up a hung parliament. One of his predecessors chose to ask for letters of support from political parties offering to support a minority government. It has also been suggested that the president can do without such letters if he is “satisfied” with the viability of a new government. In a state, the governor depends on his “discretion” to deal with uncertainties over the formation of a government. It is both legally improper and undemocratic to leave grave matters of State to the “satisfaction” or “discretion” of an individual. In case the election results fail to come up with a clear winner, the only thing Mr Mukherjee can do is invite the leader of the single largest party or pre-poll coalition to form the government. Whether the government can muster the numbers necessary to prove its majority should be left to the new Lok Sabha.