A role for the President

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

EVERY general election that has failed to throw up a decisive verdict has brought forth a variety of political strategies to enable the business of governance to proceed. Coalition government is the logical and most obvious solution to a situation of this sort, though not always a workable one. Political parties may wish to define the precise terms on which they choose to associate with others and the intimacy of a coalitional arrangement may not be acceptable in all situations.

The expedient solution of external support was worked out for the first time in 1979, following the collapse of Morarji Desai's Janata Party Government. In its first incarnation, it came suffused with no small degree of subterfuge. The promise of support was merely a prelude to its withdrawal - conditions unstated at the moment of association were dredged up shortly after the Ministry was sworn in and Charan Singh became the first Prime Minister to resign without ever facing Parliament.

The following two elections produced unambiguous results partly because they were conducted under extraordinary conditions - an anti-incumbency wave in 1980 and a sympathy wave for an assassinated Prime Minister in 1984. Significantly, every general election since then has been marked by an indecisive outcome. And except for 1991, no government sworn in after an indecisive outcome has served out a full term. The exception in fact proves the rule that chronic instability is perhaps an imbedded feature of the contemporary political landscape - the Congress(I) in 1991 was put within striking distance of a parliamentary majority only because its tally of seats was substantially boosted by the mood of public remorse that followed the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. And even so, it achieved majority status only through recourse to tactics that could at best be described as unsavoury.

This is the background against which a flurry of constitutional and legal speculation has been unleashed in anticipation of yet another hung Parliament. One of the proposals is that the President should be given a high degree of discretion in interpreting the electoral verdict and constituting a new government. The device of external support, which has been employed to prop up no fewer than four governments, has been deemed by constitutional experts like Soli Sorabjee to be totally unsatisfactory. A proposition has been advanced that the President should go beyond obtaining commitments of support from political parties for whatever governing dispensation he may want to put in place and that he should rather insist on the participation of all parties in the Union Cabinet.

Clearly, this amounts to a redefinition of the rules of engagement. External support is a uniquely Indian contribution to the lexicon of parliamentary practice and its record so far has been undistinguished. But past inconstancies are not necessarily an indicator of future behaviour. The parties that have reneged on commitments of unconditional external support in the past have been the Congress(I), on four occasions, and the BJP, on one occasion. The situation is materially different today in that these parties are the front-runners as far as possibilities of Ministry formation are concerned. If they achieve power on a commitment of external support, they will expect a greater standard of political responsibility from their associates than they have themselves displayed in the past. Although there is little basis for this expectation, it could be fulfilled merely because the other parties concerned are yet to lose their focus on fundamental issues of public concern. A withdrawal of support, if it comes, would be on a substantive issue, rather than the kind of frivolities that the Congress(I) in particular has made its staple.

But this is a contingent circumstance and does not quite go to the root of the matter. Fundamentally, the current situation is about the constitutional mechanisms available to deal with a situation of political instability, and the role of the President in the process. In formal terms, the scope of presidential powers is couched in terms of constitutional ambiguity - debate on this subject has often boiled down to minute dissections of the import of modal verbs such as 'shall', 'will' and 'may'. These have often proved quite futile, and for good reason - the President in the Indian context is a constitutional head of state. He has powers of counsel and advice, though not of autonomous action in the political realm, least of all in a matter that may in the constitutional scheme be the rightful domain of Parliament or the judiciary.

To insist that supporting parties must also participate in government may be precisely this kind of an intrusion into an autonomous realm - the sort of extrapolation of powers that a constitutional head of state should avoid. In his consultations with parties, the President could well review the past performance of such Ministries and provide advice. He has the right to be heard, but not to direct the course of political events.

It is likely that President K.R. Narayanan, who has shown a sharp eye for constitutional proprieties, will depart from the pattern set by his predecessor in certain important respects. In a situation of uncertainty, it was at one point customary that the head of state would invite the leader of the main contending political party to explore the possibilities of forming a government. President Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1996 dispensed with this option and appointed A.B. Vajpayee of the BJP as Prime Minister on the grounds that he was the leader of the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. The principle was fundamentally unsound, since the Vajpayee Ministry collapsed in a matter of 13 days.

The situation in 1998 is likely to be even more complex and uncertain. The invocation of the President's authority to 'appoint' a Prime Minister could well tilt the scales when they should be held even. For this reason, most observers expect that President Narayanan may well exercise the exploratory option. Again a mechanical application of the principle of the "largest party first" could well be avoided in favour of a more complex calculation.

The exercise hinges on a preliminary assessment of the viability of every political formation that may stake a claim to ministry formation. Such an exercise should presumably avoid both the impropriety of a parade of elected representatives through the portals of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the error of haste that was committed in 1996. The process is by no means easy, since schisms and splits in parties that unitedly fought the elections are a likelihood and arbitration under the Anti-Defection Act is the sole preserve of the presiding officer of the legislative body concerned, subject to later judicial review. It is the lot of President Narayanan today to navigate these turbulent waters while ensuring a viable ruling arrangement and avoiding any hint of arbitrary action.

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