May 29, 2020
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What Are His Options?

What Are His Options?

THE term 'hung Parliament' is being used rather loosely to describe a situation in which no party secures a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Article 79 lays down that Parliament comprises the President and the two Houses—the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. The general elections affect the composition of only one constituent—the Lok Sabha.

Also, to label the new Lok Sabha as 'hung' would be premature as it would be so only if and when it fails to throw up any government and it becomes necessary to dissolve it and seek another mandate. The mere fact of no single party securing an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha may be no ground for viewing either the Lok Sabha or Parliament as 'hanging' or 'hung'.

It seems there was a design behind the prospect of 'hung Parliament' being bandied about throughout the electoral process. The strategy perhaps was to instil a fear of instability, break-up of the nation, chaos and much worse, in the people so as to bring them to their knees to vote for the ruling government and the leader who promised to give them the moon if they allowed him another term.

A situation whereby no single party secures a clear majority and the consequent formation of a coalition government is nothing unusual or unprecedented in India. It is a different matter that the Indian experience, particularly at the Centre, has not been very happy. The governments headed by Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar did not last long and the manner in which Narasimha Rao converted his minority into a majority will always remain an ugly blot in the history of our parliamentary democracy. But then, coalition experiments in West Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, etc, can be considered quite successful in terms of the stability and longevity of governments.

Under Article 83(2), the Lok Sabha has a prescribed term of five years but the President may dissolve the House any time. It is an interesting but rarely remembered fact that right from the first Lok Sabha, not a single House has completed its full term under Article 83(2) and every House has been dissolved by the President under Article 85(2)(b).

The five-year term of this Lok Sabha would take it up to the first week of July and unless it is dissolved earlier, it shall constitutionally continue till then even if the new Lok Sabha has been elected. It is certainly conceivable that the Prime Minister (and his Council of Ministers) may not advise the President to dissolve the House under the pretext of the Kashmir elections or even thereafter until the House completes its term.

It is understood that the Prime Minister is being advised by some cronies that he can continue until the entire electoral process is completed and all the results—including Jammu and Kashmir—are announced. There would be no irregularity in the constitution of the new House without members from one of the states being elected. It is quite normal that polling in some parts of the country is held after the rest for various reasons of ground realities, but that never holds up the formation of the new government. Perhaps by postponing dissolution, he hopes to gain much needed time for the politics of manipulation and for buying parties and parliamentarians. Legally, postponement may be possible in view of the prescribed Lok Sabha term. But, this would be a most preposterous and unfortunate stand for a prime minister to take. After he knows that his government does not command the confidence of the new Lok Sabha, his continuance as prime minister would be illegitimate. The President would have to step in and advise the prime minister to resign and recommend dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

Under Article 75(1), "the Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President and the other ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister." All ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the President (Article 75(2)). Hence, unlike the Lok Sabha, there is no prescribed term for the Council of Ministers. But, in Article 75(3) it is laid down that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the Lok Sabha which means that it should have the confidence of the House. In the best traditions of parliamentary polity, the Prime Minister is expected to submit his resignation and that of his Council of Ministers as soon as it is clear that he and the ruling party have lost the mandate. The amended Article 74 provides that the President 'shall' act in accordance with the advice of his Council of Ministers. However, appointment of a new prime minister is one function in which he cannot be guided by the outgoing prime minister (or his council).

If one of the parties is returned with a clear majority, there is no problem for the President. But what should he do when no single party has secured a clear majority? During R. Venkat-araman's presidentship, this matter was examined in great depth. The conclusions: (i) the President should not involve himself in controversy by having a headcount or trying to determine the majority support behind any leader, thereby inviting criticism of promoting or allowing horse trading of legislators; and (ii) he should invariably invite the leader of the single majority party in the House to form the new government. If he fails, then the leader of the next largest party and so on should be asked to form a government. He has another option—under Article 86(2) he can ask the Lok Sabha to elect its leader.

If nothing works and the President finally finds the position really 'hung', he may have to order fresh elections and seek a clearer mandate from the people. But in such an extremely unlikely eventuality, the President must ensure that it does not become an excuse for the continuance of the existing discredited and disowned outfit. Taking a cue from Bangladesh perhaps, an interim government from outside the political arena or with the vice-president or the chief justice at the head may be appointed till fresh elections are held.

Whatever else may happen, all eyes are set on the President. There is no doubt that the role of the President in the next few days will be crucial. The churning process that is on may lead to new political alignments and fresh constitutional interpretations. Also, it may change the course of history.

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