It has taken former president of India Pranab Mukherjee nearly seven months to begin the task of painting his image afresh. His comments flagging the idea of holding all elections in the country simultaneously, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a strong votary of, must be seen in this light.
Mukherjee reportedly said during a lecture at a civil society think-tank in Delhi that holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections was “very difficult to implement” and would lead to denial of the right of states to a “representative government”.
A Parliamentary panel had considered the issue and had recommend in December 2015 that the terms of various state Assemblies be artificially altered to implement the project. It is this artificial clubbing that Mukherjee appeared to have been referring to while making the argument about denial of states' rights.
Citizen Mukherjee vs President Mukherjee
Mukherjee's assertion is at complete variance with his own views that he expressed repeatedly when he was in office. He first backed the idea in September 2016, addressing students at a Teachers' Day function.
In January 2017, addressing the nation on the eve of Republic Day, he clearly said “time is also ripe for a constructive debate on” electoral reforms and simultaneous polls to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies.
Urging the Election Commission to hold consultation with political parties in this direction, he did not flag any issued whatsoever then. Once again, speaking on National Voters’ Day in 2017, he firmly stressed, “I do believe that if political parties seriously agree on this issue with the help of Election Commission, it may be possible”.
Now that he is speaking as a free man, it is clear that his conviction really lies in the assessment that simultaneous polls is a bad idea. That also makes clear what was always suspected – that he supported the idea as a compulsion of the office he held.
The President's office under Ram Nath Kovind
These circumstances are not too different from an entirely unrelated set of developments that have been recently reported about the same office, now held by Mukherjee's successor, Ram Nath Kovind. Under him, Rashtrapati Bhavan is once again attracting flak for a highly unusual occurrence – the President withdrawing his own assent to the appointment of a central university vice-chancellor, giving in to demands by the government.
Kovind himself had reportedly given his assent to the appointment then suggested by the government. However, the appointment was mysteriously never notified, with the government eventually asking the President to withdraw his assent. This is reportedly the the first time ever that the government has approached the President’s office to cancel an appointment that had already been approved.
In the seven-decade long history of independent India, the President's office has often attracted moniker's like 'paper-tiger' and 'rubber-stamp'. In the Constitutional scheme of things, it is a largely ceremonial office, but not without powers. These powers stem from the nation's expectations from the President as the moral compass of the polity.
In matters routine as well as extraordinary, the President is expected to use his own discretion to ascertain the desirability of decisions the government will want him to approve. Political concerns loom large but there are occasions when a bi-partisan approach needs to be taken. After all, the office of the President is not co-terminus with the government. Mukherjee was elected during the UPA's tenure and continued under the NDA.
As a veteran on the country's political horizon and as witness to nearly all of the high points of the Republic's journey for half a century, Mukherjee could have afforded to assert himself on a few occasions. In fact, he did so on two occasions recently, cautioning against the rise of intolerance and the liberal use of Ordinances.
The discussion on simultaneous polls too was one such occasion when Mukherjee ought to have flagged the perilous implications of the idea. His own assertions now amount to a poor reflection on his tenure and his inability to rise for the Republic.