Does it matter that Dr.Manmohan Singh was not affirmed as Prime Minister by the popular vote of the nation, but merely selected to that post by a coalition of parties following the election? Does it matter, further, that he is not even a member of the Lok Sabha, and - as a result - has not acquired the popular vote of any constituency?

A free people deserve to be represented by someone whose leadership was on offer at the time their choices were made. Perhaps for this reason, those appointed to high office without public affirmation at the polls are sometimes required - by tradition, even if not by law - to obtain the electoral seal. In Dr.Singh's case the impropriety is worsened by another problem: even his status as a Rajya Sabha member from Assam is plainly questionable. To the knowledge of nearly everyone, he is not ordinarily resident in that state, as is claimed. By any non-partisan assessment of this situation, therefore, one would have to conclude that his ascent is far short of the democratic ideal.

Nonetheless, the parliamentary and electoral system in our nation allows this to happen. Moreover, this situation has become more an accepted one in our polity and less a debated one. India could reform her electoral system to allow the head of the executive to be directly elected in the manner that Indonesia has transitioned to recently, but that change seems far too distant, given that an amendment to force Ministers to seek popular mandate with a Lok Sabha seat itself is not on the cards.

Nor is it possible to overlook the reality of Indian politics today. Although Sonia Gandhi is the popular leader of the largest parliamentary party, she is clearly unacceptable to large sections of the population in the role of the Prime Minister. Her embrace of Indian-ness and assumption of political leadership of the Congress have not been ideal. At the same time, during her stewardship, the Congress has fared reasonably well in State-level politics, and possibly arrested its long decline at the national level. If those are the start of recovery for the Congress, then one may even conclude that her willingness to stand aside from the PM's post avoided considerable bitterness in Parliament, and exhibited considerable statesmanship.

These nuances, however, were perfectly clear at all times. The Congress did not discover after the election that its leader would be unacceptable to some; it merely gambled that such opposition could be overcome, and lost that bet. The fallback option - appointing an acceptable and amenable loyalist - was probably considered all along, even if not publicly, by partners and opponents alike, and perhaps even understood by many of the voters. This could explain why the choice of Manmohan Singh simply seemed to confirm the inevitable, with the Congress simply being the last to recognize that.

For Manmohan Singh, this tortuous road to the Prime Minister's office may be both fortuitous and a handicap. He is not the Prime Minister by right or popular mandate, but simply the man deemed most suited to occupy that role in the midst of the most notable political currents today. His appointment is a deal between kingmakers. But whatever the demerits of that history, he is also the Prime Minister, with the attendant power and authority it brings. History - even New Delhi's own history - is replete with the stories of stand-ins who grew to their own strengths.

Dr.Singh may be older than most who have made that transition, but it is nonetheless possible that in time, he will acquire the political stature befitting that appointment. If he does a fine job, could he - in the process of that accomplishment - sweep aside these considerations that now appear to reign him in? Certainly, that is possible. For now, though, he has only the managerial substitute to the standing that might arise from better outcomes.

Which returns us to the question - does it matter?

Some would assert that having started with one toe stretching beyond the ideal starting line, the PM shoulders greater expectations than those a routinely elected Prime Minister would have to. If Dr. Singh perform's substantially better than average, justified criticism of his appointment may be partially overcome. Others will argue that Dr.Singh's performance cannot be a proxy to seal criticism on how he may have risen to his post. Of course, the burden itself could be lightened greatly by contesting - and securing victory in - a Lok Sabha by-election, but that route appears closed for now.

But now, that die is cast, and questions of performance will take centre-stage. As the winter session of Parliament looms, the Prime Minister must begin to demonstrate that the answers favour him.
The situation is complex either way. If Manmohan Singh steers the nation towards greatness, that might indicate the normal electoral situation is not really designed to produce praiseworthy leaders, and it is only by such extra-parliamentary maneouvers that we are able to find good leadership. If, on the other hand, he fails to deliver substantially better government than the political class has so far, then pundits will quickly point out that he was 'selected' not elected. But having mounted the horse, Dr.Singh no doubt finds that it is now his to ride.

Thus far, criticism has been limited to the mechanics of his assumption of office. But now, that die is cast, and questions of performance will take centre-stage. As the winter session of Parliament - the first one for which he has had a meaningful amount of time to prepare - looms, the Prime Minister must begin to demonstrate that the answers favour him.