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May 4, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Venkataraman vs Narayanan: caretaker vs undertaker

If only President Narayanan had not shown the hurry he did, he could have created history. Just as he had ensured that, even after the BJP-led government had lost the confidence vote, the Lok Sabha passed the Finance Bill 1999-2000 to preempt a constitutional crisis in budgetary matters, he could by now have helped to put on the statute book at least three path-breaking legislations: the Insurance Regulatory Authority & Development Bill, the Women's Reservation Bill and the bill to withdraw the Urban Land Ceiling & Regulation Act.

All these three forward-looking legislations had the backing of the treasury benches and the Congress party with its 139 MPs in the lower house. The government had previously expressed its readiness to accept the changes suggested by the respective Parliamentary Standing Committee for the Insurance and Urban Ceiling bills. And the Women's Reservation Bill had the support of an additional 37 MPs of the Left Front. All they required to become law was their introduction in the Lok Sabha without the obstructionist tactics of a vile minority that had stalled them earlier at the threshold stage. All they required, after the Vajpayee government's resignation, was some homework by President Narayanan before he rushed into dissolving the Lok Sabha.

All K R Narayanan had to do was to look up the files of one of his predecessors in office, R Venkataraman, who had occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan from 1987 to 1992. If Narayanan had only perused those files, he would have located a landmark letter of March 6/7, 1991 sent by Venkataraman after the Chandra Shekhar ministry's resignation had been accepted by him. In Venkataraman's own words, "I sent a letter to the speaker as well as to the prime minister that when the President asked the prime minister to continue in office, he had the power to function as such, in legislative as well as administrative matters." ( My Presidential Years by R.Venkataraman, Paperback 1995, pg 406). That opinion was based on a British precedent and was formed after consultation with constitutional experts.

Thus, instead of being concerned exclusively with the Finance Bill, K R Narayanan who, remember, had last year declared his intention to be a "Working President", should have asked the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to seriously consider passage of the above three pieces of major legislation. But as events showed, Congressman Narayanan seemed so eager to show out Vajpayee and usher in Soniaji that he seemingly overlooked a lot else including what Venkataraman had done.

Indeed, if he had only digested Venkataraman's above book and nothing else, Narayanan would have learnt a lot such as the following:

Soon after Rajiv Gandhi met Venkataraman and "gave him a note detailing the problems he was having with the Chandra Shekhar ministry", the President decided that "in view of the growing speculation creating a psychosis of instability in the country", it was time to "have a frank talk with the prime minister and Rajiv Gandhi separately." The President "reminded Rajiv Gandhi of the unconditional support he had promised to the ministry and the loss of credibility he would suffer by acting contrary to his words." (ibid pgs. 397 and 398). Did our present "Working President'' do anything like that at all to rein in Jayalalitha even once during the 13 months that she made the BJP coalition do a tango around her again and again?

After V P Singh's ministry resigned on the night of November 7, 1990, Venkataraman "immediately embarked on the task of finding an alternative government "by first calling Rajiv Gandhi "as the leader of the opposition at 12 noon on November 8 to ascertain whether he was willing to shoulder the responsibility of forming the government'' (ibid pgs 368-369). Going by that "copybook" precedent, Narayanan should have called Sharad Pawar, not Sonia Gandhi, for discussing whether the Congress was in a position to form the post-Vajpayee government. And he should have done that on Sunday, April 18 --- the day after Vajpayee's resignation ---not on April 21 as he actually did.

After the Chandra Shehkhar ministry resigned on March 6, 1991, and the time had come again to try and form an alternative government, Venkataraman "frankly told Rajiv Gandhi that the old arrangement of support from outside was unacceptable" and that "unless there was a prospect of coalition or merger, it was useless to pursue these efforts"(ibid, pg.410). Going by that precedent, Narayanan should have, this time around, nipped in the bud Sonia Gandhi's ambitious foray into a minority Congress government with "outside" support letters.

Venkataraman's press communique of November 10, 1990 began by saying, "Consequent to the fall of the National Front government headed by V P Singh, the President asked...." (ibid pg. 373). Again, the president's communique of March 13, 1991 began with the sentence: "On March 6, 1991, the prime minister, Mr Chandra Shekhar and his council of ministers tendered their resignations...." (ibid pg. 412).Both these communications reflect the attitude to stick to a dignified statement of bare facts uncoloured by perceived reasons thereof. In contrast, note the language of paragraph 18 of Narayanan's communique of April 26, 1999. He pointed out therein that "the ruling alliance had lost its majority because of a lack of cohesion within its ranks and those who voted out the alliance showed the same lack of cohesion when trying to form an alternative government."( The Economic Times, April 27). Why this washing of dirty linen in public and putting your "dhobi" mark on it, Mr President?

Venkataraman's above communique of March 13 dissolving the Lok Sabha also "directed the constitution of a new Lok Sabha on or before 5th of June, 1991" ie, within a maximum of three months after Chandra Shekhar's resignation. The President thereby introduced the innovation of fixing a date for the constitution of a new Lok Sabha --- thus sustaining the British practice while also bearing in mind that though an earlier Lok Sabha was dissolved in August 1979, the caretaker Prime Minister, Charan Singh, did not call elections till December that year. Ignoring that healthy innovation, Narayanan has, in his communique, left the date for constituting the new (13th) Lok Sabha "in accordance with the recommendations of the Election Commission." Hence the bitter and avoidable controversy between political parties over the timing of fresh polls.

Whatever the dates ultimately decided by the Election Commission, the BJP-led coalition is in a fix over its powers as a "caretaker government." That phrase being non-existent in the Constitution of India, it has rightly demanded that "new rules be written for governing the country in such circumstances." It is not content with the usual belief that a caretaker government is to manage only day-to-day administrative matters and is not empowered to take policy decisions.

That reaction of the so-called "lame duck government" in turn put the President in a fix. And there he was, "Working President" Narayanan, summoning the cabinet secretary of the government of India on April 29 to brief him on the precedents on taking policy decisions by a caretaker government. This at a time when reports came in that of the six trunks of files pending with the finance minister, he had signed only a few files after April 16 while four more trunks of unattended files lay in the office of the minister of state for finance whose AIADMK incumbent had resigned earlier. It's a mess, really.

It's a mess that is being compounded by our English language edit writers and by-line correspondents who are so keen to shackle the BJP-led coalition even after its capitulation. Thus, Mahendra Ved of The Times of India wanted millions of readers to believe that in his My Presidential Years, Venkataraman had, in Chapter 35, stated that such a (caretaker) "government cannot take policy decisions or commit future generations to heavy financial burden." The word "cannot" in the preceding quote by Ved would indicate that there is some rule somewhere, written or unwritten, prohibiting a caretaker government from taking certain decisions. In truth, there is no such rule; in truth, what the first sentence of Chapter 35 of Venkataraman's book states is that " a government which was asked to carry on the administration till alternative arrangements were made should not take policy decisions." Notice the manipulation of Venkataraman's "should not" into "cannot".

The mess is being further compounded by our ill-equipped media's failure to inform the confused public that President Venkataraman himself concurred, in May 1991, with the caretaker Chandra Shekhar government's proposal to pledge 30 tonnes of the nation's gold in exchange for US dollars in order to meet the then imminent danger of incurring default in repayment of our foreign loans. Imagine the family "silver" being pledged by the nation for the first time in history and the pledger being a "caretaker government." Nor has the media enlightened the cabinet secretary, the public and our "Working President" that President's rule in Haryana proclaimed on April 6, 1991 was at the instance of the same "caretaker" Chandra Shekhar government in which the prime mover of that proclamation was a law minister by the name of Dr Subramanian Swamy!

It is clear as crystal now that more than one powerful hand is itching to play the role of the undertaker and etch RIP on the Vajpayee government's tombstone. How can such an undertaker ever be a path breaker?

Tailpiece: While lecturing to the BJP that it "take an objective view of the costs and and benefits of an early election," the first editorial of The Times of India of April 30 reminded the party and us all that "this is not the first time that a government has had to carry on business without Parliament for an appreciable period of time. This happened in 1979 during the prime ministership of Charan Singh, when the interregnum lasted five months..." The TOI, poor dear, forgot that Charan Singh's interest in running a government was such that he sat for less than forty seconds in the prime minister's seat in Parliament. And to think that the TOI is now boasting that it's just become the No. 2 newspaper in the world!

Arvind Lavakare

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