The cup and the lip

THE GREAT INDIAN CIRCUS

The cup and the lip

The sudden developments that have come in the way of the formation of a Government at the Centre are at the same time a rude shock and a startling lesson to the politicians, political analysts and the people alike. The nation, after a spell of short-lived optimism, once again finds itself perilously perched on the brink. One was looking forward to a brisk and beaming Vajpayee, with head held high walking out of the Rashtrapati Bhavan with an unambiguous invitation from the President under his belt. Instead we had to witness a deflated, distressed and disheveled man, painfully trudging his way out in measured steps, head bowed in disbelief and disgrace. His philosophical answers to the press were a poignant revelation that the BJP leader has resigned himself to fate, which, as things stand to-day, hangs at the end of a single thread from the South. All said, it would certainly be most unfortunate, if he is unable to make it as the PM, for there could be little doubt that he was the primary choice of the people for the top slot.

Claims and counter-claims on what exactly Ms Jayalalitha wants notwithstanding, the sudden turn of events brings into sharp focus the inherent perils in a coalition government, whatever its composition. It is also a grim pointer to the fact that pre-poll arrangements could be as fragile as post-poll groupings, despite the former enjoying more sanctity and credibility. To just interpret the troubles of a coalition as mere ego clashes between the partners would be to over simplify the problem. In these days of media activism, it would be difficult for even the most egoist of politicians to sustain a politics based on pure whim except at his own peril. The regional interests and the specific aspirations and, problems of the people represented by a powerful and victorious regional ally of a national party can spell even more dangerous portents for a national coalition, if not taken with due seriousness. A Jayalalitha had opted to make her intentions clear about what she wants for her State before the formation of the coalition and therefore has withheld the letter of support, but a Mamata could always want her State’s interests to be taken care of and may even withdraw the letter, after the formation of the Government and such hints have already emanated from those quarters. If it materialises, it could be even more disastrous, for the higher the altitude the greater the impact of the crash.

The practice of the President insisting on letters of consent from present and potential allies of the claimants is a very recent phenomenon. The exercise of such a caution on the part of the President is apparently due to the penchant of the Kesri brand of politicians to pull the rug at their whims and fancy. But such a wisdom cannot be made a rule of law and even a convention unless it is given constitutional sanction in the form of an amendment or an appendage to the relevant section. In the absence of a specific tradition or a constitution compulsion, Presidents would do well to stick to the age-old norm of inviting the single largest party to form the government and leave it to it to prove its majority on the floor of the House within a stipulated time. It is the business of the claimant to secure the majority or face defeat, in which case the next largest single party would have to be called. And if no one is able or willing to establish his claim, the President has no choice but to either call for fresh elections or initiate a debate on the formation of a national government. This process, though painful had to be gone through as the price the country has to pay for a fractured verdict.

It is not the job of the President to ensure a stable Government. He cannot guarantee what the mandate has failed to achieve. If the Rashtrapati Bhavan had to personally supervise the securing of the majority by insisting on letters of support, the office of the President would also be unnecessarily drawn into controversy when some allies choose to withdraw the letter subsequently, as had happened in the past. The President would also stand slighted for depending upon the assurances of such parties, whose priority would always be to get the best deal for their party and State. It is therefore wholly unwarranted to expose the office of the President to such ignominy as political parties would be more guided by their compulsions rather than a commitment to the President for having given a letter of support. When the Congress withdrew support to the UF it was only the latter that felt betrayed. But now, if some ally were to withdraw support even after a written assurance to the President, then the office of the President would also stand betrayed. And more distressingly, it would also be partly to blame for its naivete in relying on unreliable politicians. Instead, it is certainly prudent to steer clear of the muddy world of politics if only to avoid getting the sacred office of the Rashtrapati also muddied. And this could be best achieved if the President just sticks to the norm of inviting the single largest party to form the government and leave the problem of securing the majority to its leader within a certain time.

But the indications that emerge from the capital do not augur well. The wisdom of calling the Congress and UF for talks on the possibility of their forming a government is, to put it mildly, wholly unfounded. Besides their dubious track record of cooperation amongst themselves, there is also the bad precedent that has to be reckoned. Narayanans could be trusted with fairness and objectivity but imagine what would happen if Bhandaris come to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavans in future. Assuming that the two defeated outfits do assure the President of their ability to form a stable government and even produce proof to that effect, would the President be right in exercising his judgement in their favour? Obviously not. It is Parliament and its precincts that is the right place for testing the strength of a government and no number of letters of support or display or parade of strength by anyone, anywhere else could be truly deemed constitutional. On present sights, it certainly appears unwarranted on the part of the President to even call the other formations for discussion, especially when their fronts are even more in disarray, failing as they have to even elect a leader for their parliamentary parties yet. Also, 240 is good enough a number, given the distribution of members in the Lok Sabha, to entitle Vajpayee the first invitation to try his hand and it is best left to the wisdom and enlightened self-interest of the BJP to cajole and convince its allies to play ball. Vajpayee, on his part, should shed his reluctance and pick up the gauntlet.

Jayalalitha has made it quite clear that she is neither hankering for any plum cabinet slots nor is she adamant about the dismissal of the DMK government as a pre-condition for support. Considering her public stance on the issue and her party’s undisputed leadership within her group, it would be an unnecessary exercise on the part of the BJP to read deeper motives behind the non-receipt of the letter by lending credence to the utterances of some of her allies. Instead they would do well to take the cue and address professionally some of the problems raised by her and work out a mutually satisfying arrangement. Any failure to arrive at a decision soon will only end up in a rerun of the UF circus, this time with the Congress also pitching in as an added attraction.

Such an outcome would not only be negation of the wishes of the people, but would tantamount to frittering away a very hard-earned mandate.

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Jawahar T R