January 18, 2020
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The President's Prerogative?

Shankar Dayal Sharma triggers a row by inviting politicians to an annual governors' conclave, sidestepping convention

The President's Prerogative?

HAVING sworn in three prime ministers in less than a year, President Shankar Dayal Sharma has, by any reckoning, presided over a tumultuous and controversy-strewn phase in coalition politics. Now, at the fag end of his tenure, the president has himself sparked off a controversy by becoming the first head of state to convene a conference of governors where leaders of major political parties, including the Janata Dal, Congress, BJP, CPI, CPI(M), Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and DMK, have been invited. The two-day conclave kicks off on June 2 and political parties are already quibbling over whether the president has overstepped convention in organising such a meet.

What has fuelled the controversy is the conclave's timing. The president has not yet made it clear whether he will join the race for another term and, hence, the conference acquires subtle political overtones. But the BJP, the Congress and JD leaders say Sharma will not be able to make much political capital out of a meet which can do little beyond making suggestions.

 Points out BJP vice-president S.S. Bhandari, who will represent the party at the conference: "It would be incorrect to doubt the intentions of the president but bringing together constitutional heads and political leaders is a bit odd. No other president has done this before. However, it would be too far-fetched to say that the president has organised the meet to further his political interests. "

So what prompted Sharma to call the meet? The president, keen to initiate discussions between politicians and constitutional authorities before his term expired, apparently wanted to convene a joint conclave during last December's governors' conference itself. But that meet was cancelled because of political uncertainty in Uttar Pradesh; Sharma had to wait awhile. The president is believed to hold the view that a constitutional head cannot function in a vacuum given the fact that coalition politics is here to stay.

The president's action has not come up for criticism from politicians and the media alone. Sharma's friend and former governor of Assam, Meghalaya and Tamil Nadu, Bhishma Narain Singh, shot off a letter to him on May 12 in which he advised the president to call off the conference since it was not in the spirit of the Constitution. "Sharmaji has always adhered to norms. I have great respect for him on that count. But in this case, I feel he has been ill-advised. Politicians have never been invited to a governors' conference before. The prime minister and the chief minister may call a meeting of political leaders, but not a president or governor. I am sure many governors will be upset at what is happening," Singh told Outlook.

The agenda of the conference has been drawn up—by the president himself. Sharma, it is reliably learnt, wants constitutional functionaries and political leaders to discuss—and help arrive at a broad consensus—the role of a president or a governor in the event of a hung Parliament or Assembly; which party should be called upon by the constitutional head to form a government in such situations; the timeframe that should be given to a leader to prove his majority in the circumstances.

There are doubts whether the conference will achieve these aims. In the view of many politicians, it is virtually impossible for a two-day conference to draw up even broad guidelines on such contentious issues. Thus, the conclave may never rise above routine discussions. Bhandari, for one, is not particularly optimistic. "We will at best exchange views. I personally doubt if any guideline or formula can be arrived at through this meeting. The president has invited us and, therefore, we are attending the meeting."

 Bhandari's lack of enthusiasm is shared by political leaders from other parties as well. But some are positively upset that Sharma, who is a constitutional expert, did not take cognisance of the unwritten code—that constitutional functionaries should maintain their distance from political leaders. Points out Kerala PCC president and MP Vayalar Ravi: "What the president has done is not a healthy trend. Fifty years of tradition says Sharma should not have called the meeting in the first place. No guidelines can be drawn up by such conferences because there is no guarantee that any two situations a constitutional head is likely to face will be the same. One wonders what the conference will finally achieve."

According to another Congress leader, during Jawaharlal Nehru's prime minister-ship, too, then president Rajendra Prasad had thought of calling a meeting of political parties to draw up guidelines. But Nehru had opposed the idea since "the power of the constitutional head has been defined by the Constitution." According to a senior CPI(M) leader, the president has "transgressed" constitutional propriety. "If Sharma wanted to meet political leaders he could have called them individually. But why at a governors' conclave?" he asks. The governors, according to politicians, deal with the House and not with political parties. Thus, even a broad consensus arrived at the conference would be meaningless. The proceedings of a conclave of constitutional heads is confidential and other than exchanging views nothing can possibly emerge from the meeting. At the end of the day, the president, they feel, would have achieved little—but break traditions, trigger an unnecessary controversy and set an unhealthy trend of constitutional heads working in tandem with politicians.

THE governors' conference is an annual event where national issues involving the economy, development, defence and external affairs are discussed. It is a stocktaking of sorts where the constitutional heads also decide future plans for the state. "These proceedings of the meetings are never publicised, so how can you have political leaders attending such meetings?" asks Bhishma Narain Singh.

According to a leading constitutional lawyer, the 1971 report of the committee of governors had dealt with drawing up guidelines for constitutional heads. The committee, set up during the presidentship of V.V. Giri, was headed by Bhagwan Sahay and had four other members, governors P. Gopala Reddy, V. Vishwanathan, S.S. Dhawan and Ali Anwar Jung. The committee had stated that no guideline could be fixed since the constitutional head would have to assess the prevailing situation before taking a decision—in fact, this was the only guideline they could decide on.

The Sarkaria Commission made a similar assessment. In its chapter on Centre-state relations, the commission states that the governor may exercise his/her "discretion" when inviting the leader of a political party to form the government.

At the June conclave, Sharma hopes to give a definition to "discretion". And address such questions: should the constitutional head call upon the leader of the single largest party or a group of parties, staking claim to power, to form the government? A question which has no definite answer. Sharma himself has had to exercise his discretion on three occasions in the last one year. And each time his decision was governed by circumstances and were not the same. "I am sure Sharma will reconsider his decision and keep the politicians away from the governors' Conference," says Bhishma Narain Singh. But Rashtrapati Bhavan is yet to strike off any of the names from the daunting invitees' list.

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