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Presidential puzzle: why the Congress waited and watched

New Delhi, Feb. 21: Will A.P.J. Abdul Kalam sign on the dotted line if the Centre brings an ordinance dismissing the Mulayam Singh Yadav government' The President’s “mind” is one of the biggest imponderables weighing on the minds of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his senior cabinet colleagues from the Congress as they wonder whether to go ahead with the “topple-Mulayam” operation.

If sussing out Kalam’s thoughts is difficult for the government, observers believe the President’s options are circumscribed by precedents in his own time: the Supreme Court’s indictment of the “midnight” proclamation ordering dissolution of the Bihar Assembly in 2005 would be high on the list.

Kalam had signed the dissolution recommendation faxed to him in Moscow after a cabinet meeting that ended close to midnight on May 22. The court declared the order “unconstitutional”.

In March 2005, when Shibu Soren was installed Jharkhand chief minister although the UPA had fewer numbers than the NDA in a hung Assembly, the President sought “clarifications” from Governor Syed Sibtey Razi twice on why he had decided to invite Soren.

The Centre was rapped on the knuckles by the apex court which not only advanced the date of the floor test given by Razi to Soren but also issued a list of dos and don’ts to the pro-tem Speaker to ensure nothing untoward happened. The three-judge bench said: “When the action of the governor had bothered the President to summon him, how can we shut our eyes to all the happenings'”

Kalam was regarded as the touchstone of propriety by the court.

Bihar came two months later and it is an open secret that Kalam was upset by the order and his relations with the government soured for a while.

Questions were raised over the circumstances in which the dissolution was ordered. Why couldn’t the government have waited for the President to return to Delhi' Why did Kalam sign and return the recommendation within hours' The President was miffed at the suggestion that he had “allowed” himself to be “dragged” into this episode.

Therefore, when he had to take a call on the office-of-profit bill, he was unusually cautious and returned it to the cabinet with his own “guidelines” which the government is looking into.

If K.R. Narayanan was conscious of living up to the perception of him as a “secularist” and a friend of the poor and the marginalised during the Gujarat phase of the NDA’s rule, Kalam is mindful of his image as a role model for the urban youth who see him to be in sync with their “ideal” of what someone in an office of power should be: focused, tech-savvy, nationalist and “frank”. He is seen as the opposite of the archetypal politician — preachy, scheming and opportunistic.

Those claiming to know Kalam said he would be “extremely circumspect” if the order were placed before him. “Naturally, he considers things on a case-to-case basis but is guided by certain principles,” said a source.

Besides, Kalam is expected to demit office in July this year. It is unlikely that he will want another term or get it, given the composition of the electoral college and the advantage that the Left Front has vis-a-vis the Congress and the BJP. The BJP had briefly floated the idea of renominating Kalam but it was scuttled by its ally, the Shiv Sena, after an influential section of the party nudged Bal Thackeray to speak out against him. Sources said it is unlikely he would want to exit in a trail of controversy.

The Congress has been buttressing its case for sacking the Mulayam government for the past week. Its best legal minds were fielded to present the case to the media. The Prime Minister was himself involved in the exercise. On Monday, he called on Kalam after a meeting of the Congress Working Committee to bounce off him the argument that the apex court verdict disqualifying 13 rebel BSP MLAs who voted for Mulayam could be interpreted as a suggestion of breakdown of the Constitution.

A source close to Kalam said: “Knowing him, he will marshal all the legal expertise at his command and have the order and its implications gone into threadbare before doing anything.” The constitutional choice before him is to return such an order once for the cabinet to reconsider. But if it is sent back, his hands are tied.

Lest it be forgotten, when Kalam was elected in 2003, Mulayam was one of his original backers. He had served as Mulayam’s chief scientific adviser when he was the defence minister in the United Front government. The Congress was unsure whether it should back Kalam when the NDA nominated him. But when Mulayam spoke of the importance of sending a Muslim to the august office, the Congress’s mind was made up.

Sources close to Kalam made light of this nugget of history, saying: “He has served under so many defence ministers and had equally cordial relations with all of them.”

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