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Rashtrapati Bhavan Race: TENSE PARTIES SLUG DIRT, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 4 July, 2012 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 4 July 2012

Rashtrapati Bhavan Race


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Presidential election slated later this month has raised extraordinary excitement among people; notwithstanding, it is an indirect election in which voters do not participate. For reasons best known to our polity, no worthwhile attempt to pick a consensus candidate was made. On the contrary, one is witnessing a bitter conflict between Parties, UPA vs NDA and among alliance partners. Rumours are afloat of demands being made for support and political bargains struck.


An unusual feature of this Presidential election is the hectic canvassing by candidates on a scale never seen in the last 60 years of Independence.  The contestants are touring various States, seeking support of leaders and Parties, big and small, even in jail.  Thanks to 24-hour TV, we know every movement of the contenders and their sponsors.


Indeed, this canvassing seems strange against the backdrop of the general belief that the President is a titular head, a “rubber stamp” and has no powers.  Textbooks picture the President of India as a nominal head like the British monarch free from day-to-day Governmental responsibilities.


Notably, one can understand the ambition of politicians with long political innings who aspire for the top post which carries a big salary, high prestige value, honour as the country’s first citizen and many privileges, untouched by austerity prescriptions.  All, without the stress and strain of an active political life, Parliamentary workload, Ministerial responsibility etc.  Thus, a race for such a post is quite legitimate.


Significantly, the 2012 contest for Rashtrapati Bhavan has proved beyond doubt that the President is not a mere rubber stamp.  The tension that Parties and the Government are exhibiting arises from the fact that the person elected President holds the key of who will sit on India’s Raj gaddi after the 2014 general election. 


Clearly, the President would have to play a significant political role as envisaged by the Father of the Constitution. Ambedkar pointed out, the Head of State has two important prerogatives: One, appointment of the Prime Minister. Two, dissolution of Parliament.  Both are crucial factors today given the era of coalition politics wherein Parliamentary majorities can be made and unmade sans ideology, issues and values.


Importantly, it is an unwritten dictum that the President should not only act impartially, but should appear to act impartially.  He has to command the respect and trust of all Parties.  Certainly, difficult for any politician steeped in Party politics and holding unflinching loyalty to a particular leader and Party.  Consequently, the politician has to extricate himself/herself from Party bonds and assume a neutral posture in letter and spirit. 


It cannot be said that all Presidents in the past have fulfilled their role without giving rise to criticism.  The high Presidential Office has been dragged into controversies for many acts of commissions and omissions. The expectation from the new President to take impartial decisions is very high against the backdrop of a fractured mandate in the 2014 Parliamentary polls. 


Undeniably, ‘hung’ Parliaments have become the order of the day as no Party or even a pre-poll alliance has got a clear verdict to govern. Also, several Parties contest without entering into any alliance and only decide about extending support after the elections. That too, after striking a hard bargain and wrangling a ‘good deal’ to participate in the next Government.  This time around too, hectic political activity is sure to follow post polls.


What then is the President’s role in such a scenario? In the event of a divided verdict, the President can take a chapter from predecessor R.Venkataraman’s book. Who invited Rajiv Gandhi, leader of the single largest Party but sans majority to form the Government in 1988.  But Rajiv refused the invitation because he did not enjoy the majority of 272 MPs required to win the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha.


Questionably, there is no logic in inviting the biggest Party to form the Government when it does not enjoy the majority support. Summoning a Party in order of their numerical strength in the Lok Sabha violates a sound principle as earmarked by a Committee of Governors over 40 years ago. Namely, the ability to command majority support is more important than the reality of winning the largest number of seats.


In Britain, mother of our Parliamentary norms, this is termed as “reasonable prospect of maintaining itself in office.” This practice is also followed in India by the Party staking its claim to form the Government by “getting written support of different Parties” and “promises” of issue based “outside support” without joining the Government.


Significantly, the era of coalition Governments made its debut in the 1970s, and barring the early and mid-80’s have since come to stay. A further development in recent years is the established supremacy of some regional Parties in their respective States which do not depend on any national Party to win elections. But, instead, can dictate terms for extending their support to it.  Undoubtedly, quid pro quo politics is natural, never mind Parties refuse to admit this.


This apart, entrenched regional Parties confident of their base, and keen to keep their options open post poll results, shun pre-poll alliances. Needless to say, this pot pourrie of electoral politics will make the job of the President somewhat tricky in deciding which combination of Parties would have reasonably sound prospects of providing a stable Government. The President can tackle this by applying the numerical test yardstick irrespective of the coalition’s trustworthiness or compatibility to prove his neutrality.


Further, in the event of dissolution of Parliament, the President can exercise his discretion and is not bound by the advice of his Council of Ministers. Recall, the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1979 on the advice of the then Prime Minister Charan Singh who refused to face a confidence vote in the Lok Sabha, is still remembered as an instance of violation of the Constitution.


All in all, it is imperative the President explore every possibility of anointing a reasonably stable Government.  Particularly, in a multi-Party milieu, the inherent weaknesses of individual Parties and the Prime Minister, add impetus to the powers of the President in exercising his discretion in Government formation as also dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Any wonder, Parties are more tense than Pranab Mukherjee and Sangma in this Presidential contest. ---- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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