India will elect its 13th president on July 22, when votes cast earlier this week by about 5,000 national and state legislators are tallied. The almost certain winner is former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, a career politician and the official candidate of the ruling Congress Party.
Though the largely ceremonial office carries little clout-the prime minister wields executive power-India's president is nonetheless the country's official head of state. Not surprisingly, the national media has giddily covered every twist and turn in Mukherjee's likely ascent to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palatial 340-room estate completed in 1929 for the viceroy of British India. But nobody has paused to ask why India needs an elected president in the first place. Perhaps it's time the world's largest democracy considered a constitutional monarch instead.
Before dismissing the suggestion as ludicrous, consider its logic. A hereditary monarch provides the comfort of continuity against a backdrop of rapid economic and social change. The best ones also take over the brunt of ceremonial duties at both home and abroad, allowing the executive to focus on governance. And since they don't have to worry overly about faddish public opinion, monarchs are often better able to stand up for core national values such as pluralism and fair play than a career politician conditioned by reflexive attention to short term goals.
In many of the other parliamentary democracies cleaved from the Empire, Queen Elizabeth II still acts as head of state. This is probably a nonstarter for India, which is proud of its independence struggle and wary of foreign influence. Luckily, there's a closer option at hand: the nearly 100-year-old Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, led currently by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi. Who needs to import a royal family when you have a perfectly serviceable one of your own?
Indeed, in India, the transition to monarchy would be virtually seamless. Many Indians, from captains of industry, to normally hard-bitten journalists, to star-struck society hostesses, already treat the Nehru-Gandhis like royalty. A cabal of courtiers and party officials zealously guards their privacy and shapes their public image. The family itself acts like royalty, gently floating above the rough and tumble of national discourse. They've lived in taxpayer-funded housing for more than 60 years.
With their famous last name, pan-Indian appeal, and vast experience in the public eye, the Nehru-Gandhis seem better suited to a life of ribbon-cutting and ceremonial globetrotting than many of the presidential palace's previous occupants. In power, the family expresses its patrician noblesse oblige by backing costly and inefficient welfare programs India can't afford; as purely ceremonial leaders they could continue to make the right noises but do little actual harm.
Add to this the uncertain electoral appeal of the dynasty's bumbling heir apparent, 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, and you begin to see why it may be time for India's de facto royal family to borrow a trick from Europe and leave the grubby business of politics to lesser mortals. In short, the idea of Her Royal Highness Sonia and Crown Prince Rahul makes as much sense for the family as for India.