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Since 1st March, 1999
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Pratibha does homework for post-poll test

New Delhi, May 4: Just when many politicians are winding down after punishing days on the campaign trail, President Pratibha Patil has begun to prepare herself for the big test that lies beyond counting day.

The President’s office has prepared a six-page note that records the composition of every government since Independence, keeping in mind the fact that Patil’s role will come into play 72 hours after the election results are announced on May 16.

However, political players and observers are wondering about an “unthinkable” scenario that does not figure in the note but which entails that no political party or group will aggregate a simple majority of 272 seats.

According to article 73 of the Representation of the People Act, the Election Commission has to collect and compile all results and then submit the data to the President – an exercise that usually takes three days. The President also has the right to invite and consult any legal expert before deciding about her course of action.

As the note will refresh the President’s memory, on most occasions till 1989, a single-party majority necessitated little intervention from the President. In 1989, the Congress had finished as the single-largest party with 196 MPs. But the then leader, Rajiv Gandhi, had declined to stake claim, paving the way for the formation of a National Front government under V.P. Singh which had the outside support of the BJP as well as the Left.

In 1991, the Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao fell short of 272 but the then President, R. Venkataraman, invited him to run the government on the premise that Rao will prove majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha.

In 1996, Shankar Dayal Sharma faced criticism from a section of constitutional experts when he administered the oath of office to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who failed to prove majority within the stipulated 13-day period. A hurriedly formed rainbow coalition — the United Front — succeeded which had the outside support of the Congress.

President K.R. Narayanan set a precedent in 1998 and followed it again in 1999 when he insisted that the single-largest party, the BJP, should “satisfy” him with letters of support from various political groups that their number aggregates 272. This phase saw Congress president Sonia Gandhi failing to form an alternative government in May 1999 when she could not muster “272”.

After a fresh election, Vajpayee’s NDA tally read 252 in September 1999 but he managed to prove majority on the floor of Lok Sabha. Significantly, in both 1998 and 1999, the BJP’s individual tally was higher than that of the Congress.

In 2004, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam invited Sonia Gandhi to form the government on the basis of her party’s status as the largest single one, which eventually led to the birth of the UPA.

If Patil goes by the recent precedent, she can invite the single-largest party and then seek letters of support. But some constitutional experts feel that the President could ignore the claim of the single-largest party and opt for an alliance on the ground that such a group could be able to pass a floor test.

If such a course of action is taken, it is bound to create controversy. But the sweeping constitutional powers of the President will protect her. According to the Constitution, the President alone is empowered to permit any political party or alliance to take the oath of office. Technically, she is not restricted by any convention or precedence.

“The Constitution gives sweeping powers to the President. The President alone has the wisdom to decide,” said lawyer Shanti Bhushan.

However, if she goes by the most acceptable precedence set by Narayanan of seeking letters of support from partners before extending swearing-in invitation, what happens if the UPA falls short, followed by the NDA and the third front and political logjam prevents any two formations from coming together? Constitutionally, there is no provision for a “President’s rule” at the federal level. So, a new government will have to be formed before June 4.

In such a situation, Patil will have to think out of the box. She has the option of asking the leader of the single-largest party or group/alliance to take the oath of office.

If such an arrangement fails to pass the floor test, she can go on inviting the second and third largest formations or allow the “first-fallen regime” to run a caretaker government and call a fresh election – something the new MPs will try to avoid at any cost.

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