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What the President can do - The Times of India

H K Dua ()
February 25, 1998

Title: What the President can do
Author: H K Dua
Publication: The Times of India
Date: February 25, 1998

The current Lok Sabha election is unlikely to decisively resolve
the political situation in the country. Although the third phase
of polling involving around 140 constituencies is yet to take
place, reports from different parts of the country, various
opinion polls and private assessments of political parties
suggest that no single party will get a majority in the 12th Lok

A hung parliament will call upon the President to decide who he
should invite to form the new government. Given Mr K R
Narayanan's keenness to follow the righteous path, he can be
safely expected to discharge his functions impartially. It will
not be surprising if the President has already begun looking into
the fine print of the Constitution, particularly to know more
about the scope of presidential prerogative and discretion. On
his interpretation of constitutional precept and practice and of
the electorate's verdict - if it is unclear - will depend who is
to govern India.

Unpredictable Lot

While discharging his duty under Article 75 of the Constitution,
the President will have to decide whether his decision is
credible, meets the test of legitimacy and throws up a viable
government. Mr Narayanan is unlikely to be subjective in
applying these criteria which ought to be vital in a
parliamentary democracy.

Indian politicians can be unpredictable before or after the
polls, but the President may be called upon to choose from two
claimants for an invitation from him - the BJP-led alliance or a
possible coalition between the Congress and the United Front.

Although much will depend on the arithmetic of seats in the new
Lok Sabha, the President may have to take into account whether an
alliance has been formed before the polls or afterwards. If this
test, among several others, becomes a determining factor, an
arrangement worked out after the polls attracts some disadvantage
because the President can hold the view that the electorate's
mandate was clear in the case of the alliance announced before
the polls and fractured in the case of a post-poll alliance.

While the search for a stable government will be the Presidents'
vital concern, he may have to keep in mind that in the event of a
hung Lok Sabha, political parties do not indulge in horse-trading
- a flourishing concern for the flotsam and the jetsam of
politics in India. Shifting loyalties at the time of government-
forming, sometimes involving money-bags and promises of
ministerial berths, vitiates the atmosphere and brings the entire
government into disrepute. This means that the President cannot
afford to give too much time to anyone who has been invited to
form government to prove majority in the Lok Sabha. Three or four
days' time for facing the new House will diminish, if not
eliminate, the possible mischief by the proliferating crowd of
the power-brokers roaming around in Delhi.

The President will also be well advised to disfavour the
experiment of inducting a minority government propped up with
outside support. A party supporting a government, as has been
experienced in the past, is always keen to wield power without
responsibility. The practice also leads to political instability
and frequent elections, judging from how the Congress party
withdrew support from the governments of Charan Singh (in six
months), Mr Chandrasekhar (in seven months), Mr H D Deve Gowda
(in ten months), and Mr Inder Kumar Gujral (in seven months),
causing political crisis every time.

If no political party has won a majority in the Lok Sabha, should
a President invite the single largest party to form government?
The Congress Party emerged as the single largest party after its
defeat in the 1989 election, but Rajiv Gandhi did not stake a
claim to form a government although it was a hung House.
President R Venkataraman had no problem in inviting Mr V P Singh
to form the government as he was the leader of the next largest
party, the Janata Dal and prove his majority in a month's time.

Viability Test

The principle of inviting a single largest party to form
government saw President Shankar Dayal Sharma invite Mr Atal
Behari Vajpayee to form the government that lasted merely 13
days. It confirmed a sort of legitimacy to the BJP as a contender
for power at the Centre but made little contribution to the
country in search of political stability.

The 18-month tenure of the 11th Lok Sabha thus witnessed the
futility of the President's following two principles of
government-forming - that of a minority government dependent on
support from outside and of the one formed by inviting the single
largest party.

No one knows which party or group of parties will get a majority
or attain the status of the single largest party in this
election, but it is unlikely Mr Narayanan would like to induct a
government that cannot last more than two weeks. He may have to
apply the test of viability more strictly than Mr Shankar Dayal
Sharma. President Narayanan, however, may take into account the
relative strength of an alliance formed before the election as
compared to that of the parties that did not announce their
alliance before the polls. There have been vague hints that to
keep the BJP and their allies at bay, the Congress and some UF
partners may work out a coalitional arrangement. Depending on
the arithmetic, the President may thus have to choose from a BJP-
led coalitional arrangement that was formed before the election
and the coalitional arrangement that may be announced later by
the Congress and the United Front. If the difference between the
seats gained by the two alliances is substantial, the President
will have no problems in sending his invitation, but he can be in
a dilemma if the difference is marginal.

Tangled Arithmetic

As of now, it is clear that the Congress can have no problems in
firming up its understanding with Mr Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi
Party and Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal. There is
a possibility that the Communists both CPM and CPI - may work out
an arrangement with the Congress, although it is too early to say
whether a community cohabitation between the Congress, the
Communists and others can work. There can also be problems in
getting the consent of such UF partners as the DMK, the TDP and
the AGP for joining a coalition government led by the Congress or
its nominee. These regional parties can find it difficult in
sharing power with the Congress at the Centre while being enemies
at the state-level. This means that the Congress-UF alliance may
have to discount the strength of these regional parties and
contend for power with numbers reduced to that extent, making
parliamentary arithmetic a little more complicated.

The Lok Sabha has to be constituted before March 15. The
President will not have much time to experiment with new ideas,
unless the 12th Lok Sabha is really deadlocked. There is,
however, an area of discretion available to the President in a
contingency which" hopefully he may not find it necessary to
avail of.

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