What if President Kovind is Faced with a Hung Parliament?
Recently, PM Modi seemed to declare victory before polling was over
The exit polls have only spiced up the speculation about government formation after the Lok Sabha election just ended. With their prognostication of a big win for the BJP-NDA they appear to have pumped up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team, and the BJP-RSS more generally.
However, it is not clear if the BJP’s principal opponents feel beaten and demoralised.
This is because in India the track record of exit polls is far from robust. They have been more wrong than right. Even when broadly right, they often goof up on figures by a mile.
Nevertheless, going by the law of flukes they may be proved right this time around. That cannot be ruled out. In that event, it will not be surprising if Modi rushes forward to take the oath of office as PM for a renewed term right after the verdict is clear.
But will he attempt to do so even if the election throws up a hung Parliament, and the BJP and its NDA allies find that they are well short of the 272-seat halfway mark in the Lok Sabha, but still ahead of their rivals?
This becomes a central question because Modi - as his five years in office have shown - is no shrinking violet. Given half a chance, he likes to force the issue, browbeating not just opponents but the keepers of state institutions. Modi’s tenure has been marked by a clear preference for glibness and hyperbole over constitutionalism.
So, his words to the media at a press conference organised for BJP president Amit Shah on May 17 - the so-called ‘non-presser presser’ - have a ring that should alert us. A leading daily quoted Modi as saying, “It seems that the people of the country have already given their mandate. We hope to form the government immediately after the verdict.”
These words are as shocking as they are unprecedented for a contestant. They were broadcast when the last round of voting for as many as 59 constituencies had yet to take place, and ballots hadn’t been cast even in Modi’s own constituency of Varanasi.
Can the words be put down merely to bravado on the part of a largely successful politician who has projected himself as a figure larger than life? Or is there a pushiness about the language, in an attempt to bamboozle Rashtrapati Bhavan?
It is up to President Ram Nath Kovind to put matters right through his own actions, should Modi not return to power with a majority of seats in Parliament.
The ‘zero hour of politics’ - an expression advanced, though not in writing, by a stalwart who has held positions of great eminence - sets in with the official communication of the result of the Lok Sabha election to the President by the Chief Election Commissioner, and ends with the taking of the oath of office by the Prime Minister.
The amendment made to Article 74 of the Constitution through the 42nd Amendment is categorical that the President is to be guided by the advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the PM. But in the zero hour, there is no Council and no PM. The President is her own guide.
She comes into her own.
She is called upon to act with creativity, constitutional responsibility, and an abundance of caution, if no clear majority is thrown up for a party or pre-poll alliance. She ought not to be hustled. Her mandate is to swear in a government that will last for a reasonable period of time, and not falter at the first hurdle - the confidence vote.
This is what happened in 1996 when President Shankar Dayal Sharma committed a serious mistake in inviting Atal Behari Vajpayee, the leader of the largest party, to take oath after the election. Vajpayee’s effort to form a government folded in 13 days, and he declined to take a vote of confidence as defeat was certain.
The President had not taken the trouble to ascertain whether the BJP leader would be in a position to muster the needed numbers. This is an important precedent for all occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Two years later, President K.R.Narayanan who succeeded S.D.Sharma, took four days after the declaration of the election verdict in 1998 to zero in on the likely PM. He asked for letters of support from parties whose endorsement had been claimed by Vajpayee, the aspirant who was once again in the picture. He also duly issued press notes at various stages to keep the public informed.
K.R.Narayanan’s example may be President Kovind’s best guide if the election throws up a hung Parliament. He must take every care to ensure that he does not, in the first instance, invite an MP to take oath as the Prime Minister without checking his level of support, and must refuse to permit any MP - no matter how impatient - to act as a bull in a china shop.
He is called upon to examine the credentials of all aspirants for the top job, unless a clear majority is revealed at the start.
In 1989 the Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi had finished the election with 197 seats, although his party was by far the largest in the new House. As PM, Gandhi had lost the election, in effect. He was gracious enough to acknowledge this, in his communication to President R.Venkataraman while turning down the latter’s invitation to be the first to try his hand at forming the government. It was thus that V.P.Singh, whose party had come in second, became Prime Minister.
Modi is not the sort to follow Gandhi’s example, should the poll result be adverse to him. President Kovind needs to be resolute in discharging his responsibility in such circumstances.