—Former president R. Venkataraman in his memoirs, MY PRESIDENTIAL YEARS
IF the predictions of various opinion polls about a hung Parliament come true, the emergency light will start blinking in Rashtrapati Bhavan well before the last result of the Lok Sabha elections has been announced. And the man who will be then put on maximum alert is none other than the President, Shankar Dayal Sharma. There is little doubt in anybody's mind that the role of the President will be crucial in the selection of the next prime minister.
The President's task becomes all the more difficult because of the numerous grey areas which exist regarding his role in a situation when a single party or combine fails to get a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. The Constitution does not have a specific direction for the President in such a scenario, and past experiences have often been at variance with each other. It was former president R. Venkataraman who was most conscious of the need to set the right precedent for such delicately-poised situations. But even he set himself different sets of standards on the two occasions he was called upon to use his discretion in inviting leaders to form governments at the Centre. If Sharma were to go by past precedents, which would he choose to follow?
Even before President Ven-kataraman's tenure, in fact, there had been two instances when leaders of parties—which did not have a majority on their own in the Lok Sabha—became prime ministers. The first instance involved Mrs Indira Gandhi who continued to be prime minister even after the Congress split in 1969 and reduced her faction to a minority in the Lok Sabha. But the then President, V.V. Giri, did not have to break out into a sweat because Indira Gandhi was promptly supported by the Left parties and the DMK, ensuring that she had a working majority in the House. The second occasion arose after the collapse of the Janata Party government in 1978. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the occupant in Rashtrapati Bhavan at that time and his role in inviting Charan Singh, who led the rump of the Janata Party to form a government, came in for a lot of flak from various quarters. That Charan Singh recommended the dissolution of the Lok Sabha within a week of becoming prime minister—after Indira Gandhi withdrew support—was only used as further evidence by the President's critics about his error.
Sharma can well leave the 1969 or 1978 developments alone. He will be looking closely, instead, at the manner in which Venkataraman conducted himself when the Congress emerged as the single largest party (but well short of a majority) in 1989, and when the National Front government of V.P. Singh collapsed in November 1990. Chandra Shekhar was sworn in as prime minister with his party having only 54 members in the Lok Sabha, albeit with the outside support of the Congress, the AIADMK, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Muslim League, the National Conference, the Kerala Congress(M), the Akali Dal and a few independent members.
Through both the 'crises', Venkataraman was acutely conscious of the fact that his course of action could later be taken as a precedent and would influence the conduct of future Presidents in similar situations. In both instances, he consulted a wide gamut of political and legal opinion, and was meticulous in detailing his steps for posterity. Venkataraman always swore by the rule book and did not wish to invite any adverse comment on his conduct.
But a careful perusal of his actions brings out the inherent dissimilarities. In 1989, Venkataraman, befuddled with the 'array of contradictory advice' went through numerous, authoritative tomes on the subject, looked carefully into British precedents and decided to go strictly by the numbers: that is, first ascertain if the leader of the largest single party, the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi in this case, was 'willing and able' to form a government. When Rajiv Gandhi declined, the President decided to await the election of the leader of the second largest group, the National Front, so that he could be asked the same question. Venkataraman says in his memoirs that when V.P. Singh, along with Madhu Dandavate, Dinesh Goswami and a few others, came to meet him after being elected leader of the National Front, he told him: "As the largest single party has not staked its claim to form the government, I invite you, as the leader of the second largest party, to form the government and take a vote of confidence of the House within 21 to 30 days."
In his memoirs, Venkataraman repeatedly points out that he was not looking into "the quantum of support" V.P. Singh had and that he left it to V.P. Singh to prove his majority: "On December 1, at around 8 pm, Jyoti Basu and Left Front leaders came in and informed me of their support to V.P. Singh and a National Front government. I explained to Jyoti Basu that I had not looked into the measure of support which the National Front had, but had invited V.P. Singh as the leader of the second largest party to form the government. It was for him to establish his majority in the House."
Venkataraman seemed acutely conscious of establishing this as a healthy convention, and even went to the extent of recording it in the formal communique he issued that night: "Since the Congress(I), elected to the ninth Lok Sabha with the largest membership, has not opted to stake its claim for forming a government, I have invited Sri V.P. Singh, leader of the second largest party/group, namely Janata Dal/National Front, to form a government and take a vote-of-confidence within 30 days of assuming office."
BUT Venkataraman himself did not quite conform to the meticulous standards he had set when the second crisis erupted during his tenure following the collapse of the National Front government after the Janata Dal split. Once again he invited Rajiv Gandhi, the leader of the Opposition and of the largest group in the Lok Sabha, to form the government. Rajiv Gandhi told him that he had decided "not to undertake the responsibility of forming the government and that his party would give support to Chandra Shekhar and his group". Aware of the "ugly precedent in our parliamentary history" when Indira Gandhi first extended support to Charan Singh in 1979 and then withdrew it within a week, Venkataraman "probed the nature of support and the minimum period it would last". Only when Rajiv Gandhi assured him that his support to Chandra Shekhar was "neither temporary nor conditional", did he agree to allow him to form the government: "I asked Rajiv Gandhi if this support would continue at least one year. He replied. 'Why one year? It may extend to the life of Parliament'."
By this account, it is clear that Venkataraman was not unconcerned about the quantum of support Chandra Shekhar had or its longevity. His concern was duly reflected in the official communique issued on the evening of November 9.After recording the fact that the leader of the Opposition, Rajiv Gandhi, had not staked claim to the government and that the BJP and the Left Front were also not "willing to form a viable government," the communique said: "Shri Chandra Shekhar responded to the offer and produced evidence of support to his group from the Congress(I), AIADMK, Bahujan Samaj Party, Muslim League, J&K National Conference, Kerala Congress(M), Shiromani Akali Dal (Panthic and a few Independent members.) The President is satisfied prima facie that the group headed by Shri Chandra Shekhar with the support of other parties as mentioned above has the strength to form a viable government."
Before inviting Chandra Shekhar to form the government, Venkataraman was clearly looking for evidence of his support in Parliament—something which he assiduously avoided in V.P. Singh's case.
The million rupee question is: what will Sharma do in case no party or combine gets a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha? Will he simply invite the leader of the largest party (the expectations are that the BJP will have the largest numbers in the Lok Sabha) to form the government and leave it to him to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha within the stipulated time, or will he look for prima facie evidence that its leader has majority support and that his government will be viable? The President's role is likely to become more complex as there are indications that in the event of a hung Parliament, even the National Front-Left Front alliance may try and cobble together a majority by seeking the support of sections of the Congress or all of it if P.V. Narasimha Rao is dumped as leader. Desperate to prevent the BJP from forming the government, the combine will apply pressure on Rashtrapati Bhavan to that effect.
So far Sharma's conduct has been absolutely above board. Despite his long association with the Congress (he has even held the position of party president), he has functioned in an absolutely non-partisan manner and has managed to lend great dignity to the office he holds. His dignified run, in fact, started way back in 1984 when he took over as governor of Andhra Pradesh following N.T. Rama Rao's controversial dismissal by the earlier governor Ram Lal. Sharma handled the sticky situation with great alacrity and when it became clear that NTR still commanded a majority in the assembly, took little time to reinstate him. His innings as governor alone was enough to endear him to the non-Congress parties and convince them of his sense of fair play. Later, when he was elected vice-president after his stints as governor of Punjab and Maharashtra, Sharma reinforced his non-partisan image—as Rajya Sabha chairman, he pulled up even senior Cabinet members if they behaved badly in the House.
AND he gave ample indication that he was not happy to be a mere rubber stamp President less than six months after he took over on July 25, 1992. When the Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992 and when riots erupted in some parts of the country, Sharma took the unprecedented step of issuing, what in effect was a statement to the Prime Minister, that he should uphold the rule of law with "appropriate and expeditious steps" to deal with the situation. The public expression of the presidential anguish was as good as a rebuke to the Union Government.
The last couple of months have witnessed heightened presidential activism. First, in March, he declined to promulgate two ordinances—one on curtailing the duration of the campaign period, and the other on extending job reservations to Dalit Christians—sent to him by the Union Cabinet. Sharma said it would be unconstitutional to issue the ordinances on election-eve. Last month, Sharma was once again breathing fire on the issue of constitutional propriety when he virtually forced the resignation of Himachal Pradesh Governor Sheila Kaul after it was evident that the CBI would question her for her role in the housing scam. The President made no secret of his acute unhappiness with Kaul and Rao's Government for not heeding constitutional norms.
So what will the Constitution-conscious President do in a hung Parliament scenario? No one can say for sure. For in the last few days, Sharma has kept his counsel. All that people close to him are willing to say is that he will go by "the book". But once again, the problem is compounded by the fact that the book does not say anything in black and white on the matter. He will undoubtedly consult legal opinion, though as a former professor of law at Cambridge University, his own understanding of the subject is second to none. Will he, taking a leaf out of Venkataraman's book, set new standards for posterity?