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April 27, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

A peeved President

One Congressman in Delhi, K R Narayanan by name, has felt repeatedly peeved most of the last week.

It must have started when on the floor of the Lok Sabha itself, Chandra Shekhar, an ex-prime minister, criticised his move directing a motion of confidence. Then, on April 20, our Congressman President is reported to have expressed to two middle-level party functionaries --- of the Congress Party, naturally --- his unhappiness over the way some leaders and columnists were treating the institution of the Rashtrapati Bhawan in a casual manner.

Almost simultaneously, some BJP members made it clear to a financial newspaper that their party no longer looked at one Mr K R Narayanan as a non-partisan arbiter. On April 21, another financial daily, Business Standard carried a studied article instructing Mr Narayanan that, after wrongly asking the Vajpayee government to seek a vote of confidence, he "should forthwith cease and desist." And on April 24, a Netizen poll of The Times of India indicated that, of the 90 per cent who had had a definite view on the question asked, as much as 46 per cent did not think that the President had played an impartial role in the prevailing political crisis facing the country.

All of the above are reasons enough for President Narayanan to feel peeved and issue an unusual communique last Friday urging that no credence be attached to rumours or speculative theories about his final decision on the formation of an alternative government

Events of the past week and a little before as well as some Constitutional facts do not support this attempted self-defence of the President. It appears that, like that fabled lady, our President doth protest too much.

It all goes back to the issue of imposition of President's rule in Bihar. BJP sources point out that that the proposal was put up to Rashtrapati Bhawan only after Prime Minister Vajpayee and Home Minister Advani had briefed him and obtained his informal nod. This was the correct and mature way for any government to act on a delicate issue. However, when the Bihar proposal actually went in black and white for approval, the President dilly-dallied, reportedly consulting legal luminaries and wanting more information before ultimately deciding to return it to government for reconsideration.The BJP-led coalition was stunned and shamed. It saw the whole act as a stab in the back.

Then came the day when Jayalalitha gave the letter to the President withdrawing AIADMK's support to Vajpayee's coalition, reducing it to a minority. Thereupon, the prime minister and the home minister, say BJP sources, called on the President and briefed him as to why, despite precedents, the legal onus lay on the Opposition to introduce a motion of no-confidence. As the Business Standard writer was to point out later, the government needs to show it enjoys the confidence of the House "only when it is formed" and there is no provision in our Constitution for the government to seek a vote of confidence.

This was to be reiterated on Star News by Subhash Kashyap, the retired secretary-general of the Lok Sabha and an acknowledged authority on Constitutional law. Even that world-renowned jurist of ours, the late H M Seervai, had much earlier pointed out in his classical treatise on the subject that, "A vote of censure or a no confidence motion is a recognised method of determining whether the prime minister and the council of ministers have the support of the majority of the members of the House." Apparently accepting their viewpoint, the President reportedly told Vajpayee and Advani that they need not initiate any action on the situation.

That very night, after a motley of Opposition leaders met him, the President wrote to Vajpayee advising him to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha. The BJP considers that episode as a second stab in its back from Rashtrapati Bhavan.

And so, goes the BJP logic, when Vajpayee, accompanied by Advani, went to the President with their government's resignation after losing the vote of confidence on April 17, they also handed over a letter requesting the President to ensure that, when asking someone else to form the alternate government, he get letters of adequate support --- just the way he had done before the BJP-led coalition was allowed to form the government in March last year. The President, says a bird, was peeved at such a request being made in black and white. Though a third stab in the back was not actually mentioned, some honest retort by Advani is said to have occurred. The President's peeve had become acute.

But he had it coming, really, when he proclaimed to the nation on its Independence Day that he did not want to be "a thumb impression President" but "a working President". That happened after he threw away the convention of decades in one stroke and, instead of addressing the nation suo motu on Independence Day, he decided to engage himself in a long television interview with N Ram, a confirmed leftist journalist. Our President had thereby chosen to be an activist of sorts --- a role forbidden by our Constitution for someone who is supposed to be a symbolic, titular head except in rare circumstances.

A few months later, at the height of the controversy the BJP coalition was facing over conversions and alleged attacks on Christians, the President issued a quick-fire statement on the Staines carnage as a hark-back to the dark ages. The same President was not to issue any statement on the subsequent ghastly slayings in Bihar and Kashmir. What kind of activism was this then? Was it pro-Christian activism?

What kind of activism was it, that direction to the Lok Sabha Speaker to get the Finance Bill passed? As Chandra Shekhar pointed out, did K R Narayanan forget its criticality when he pushed for a motion of confidence in unholy haste? Ought he not instead have advised patience and sanity to Jayalalitha and the motley of Opposition leaders who rushed to him baying for Vajpayee's blood?

What kind of activism is it that the Lok Sabha's Committee on Absence of Members has not yet been asked as to why it allowed Congressman Girdhar Gamang to vote on April 17 when the Speaker had announced that his seat had become vacant by virtue of his not attending Parliament's meetings for a period of 60 days without permission?

The nature of that activism is perhaps to be gleaned from Rashtrapati Bhavan's press release (of April 20) which states that "the President's consultations on the subject of an alternate government will commence with Shrimati Sonia Gandhi, president of All India Congress Committee, who has been authorised by the Congress Parliamentary Party and the Congress Working Committee in this regard." Why that attestation of Sonia's credentials? Why did the President demean himself by meeting two Christian Congressmen to receive those credentials earlier that day?

Consider our President's penchant for consulting legal luminaries after first rushing to throw the PM out, then rushing to accept his resignation and thereafter leaving the country without an effective government for at least full eight days at the time of writing this.

His legal experts may not have brought it to his notice but our activist and "working President"could, on his own, have found that gem of wisdom written by H M Seervai. Commenting on the act of President Sanjeeva Reddy asking Charan Singh to form the government on July 28, 1979 --- 13 days after Morarji Desai submitted his ministry's resignation, and Y B Chavan, leader of the Opposition, expressed his inability to form a government with just 75 members in a House of 544, Seervai observed as follows:

"…having regard to the state of the parties, it was clear that on the resignation of the Desai ministry, the formation of an alternative government if it was possible at all, must take considerable time, as in fact it did. Under the circumstances, President Reddy should not have accepted the resignation of the Desai ministry. He should have announced that the Desai Ministry had resigned, but he had not accepted its resignation pending the formation of a new ministry…In India, as we have seen, the President of India cannot act without the council of ministers. To accept the resignation of a council of ministers is to deprive them of their title to hold the offices which they respectively hold. It is submitted that the first step taken by the President was contrary to Article 74(I) (of the Constitution of India). This mistake was to lead to many other mistakes."

And to support his view, Seervai quoted Lord Salisbury's belief that "a resignation of a prime minister can never be accepted till the successor is definitely suggested."

Thus, if President Narayanan is compelled to recall Vajpayee, it will be to form a new government!! Vajpayee, therefore, will have to again go through the torture of securing a fresh vote of confidence in a stipulated time or to advise the President to order fresh elections. What a farce and a mess that will be.

By the way, has our activist President realised --- on his own or from his legal experts --- that, since a new government under the premiership of Sonia Gandhi or Jyoti Basu would have to prove its majority in the Lok Sabha in two or three weeks time after assuming office, neither would be eligible to participate in the proceedings of the House? That will be so because our Constitution stipulates that "Until a duly elected candidate takes the oath he cannot participate in the proceedings of the House as he is not regarded a member thereof." (M P Jain in Indian Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition, page26). Jain also points out that "A well established convention in England has been that the prime minister should belong to the House of Commons."(ibid, page87)

So, did our activist President, K R Narayanan by name, want to create history by nominating an Indian prime minister who would secure his/her first parliamentary vote of confidence in absentia? Or did the activist in him want the Election Commission to hold a Lok Sabha by-election for Sonia in just a jiffy?

Arvind Lavakare

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