Stop voting, Mr President

Last year, when Pioneer chose to comment editorially on President K.R. Narayanan’s decision to vote in an election, I remember wondering if it wasn’t over-reacting. Certainly, it was unusual. I also had no quarrel with the view that the Head of State must be, and must be seen to be, above all partisan considerations, and that a decision to vote necessarily involved making a political choice. With hindsight, I feel the editorial was not only perspicacious, but a portent of things to come.

Today, with his ill-conceived directive to the Prime Minister to seek a vote of confidence on the eve of Parliament reconvening, President Narayanan has cast his vote once again. I say ‘vote’ with some deliberation, because the speed with which the directive was conveyed to the ruling party within an hour of his meeting a delegation of opposition MPs, leaves no scope for doubt that he had made up his mind. In one stroke, President Narayanan threw the polity and the economy into a tailspin. Prospects of a mid-term poll loom large, millions of small investors have lost their life savings in the turmoil on the stock markets, and the country is facing an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

It will be specious to argue that the crisis is not of the President’s making, and that the present situation could have resulted anyway if the government had fallen on a cut-motion or vote of no-confidence. That may well be, but today’s situation is the result of unwarranted Presidential activism. If we wish to avoid such mistakes in future, we must look squarely at the events of the past few weeks.

It may be argued that since the government became a minority with Jayalalitha’s withdrawal of support, the President was within his rights to ask it to clarify its position. But some issues merit serious attention. First, as Parliament was already in session, it was open to the opposition to move a cut-motion or no-confidence motion. However, Mr Narayanan did not leave the opposition to do its own job. By directing the government to seek a vote of confidence even before passing the budget on which economic revival hinges so critically, he literally signaled to the opposition that he was amenable to ushering in a non-BJP dispensation. It is this factor that made it possible for the chief conspirators – the Congress and the Left – to overcome the inhibitions of various disparate groupings in the Lok Sabha. It is, if I may borrow the phrase, a monumental aberration.

Secondly, there can be little doubt that there was a conspiracy, and that the President was aware of it. Beginning with Subramanian Swamy’s much-hyped tea party, to Jayalalitha’s vow to bring down the government, and the Surjeet-Sonia manoeuvres, the President and the nation alike witnessed considerable plotting and planning to bring down the government.

The overall picture demanded great maturity and restraint on the part of the President. In fact, immediately after the opposition delegation called on him, his close advisers let it be known that he would be consulting constitutional experts about the developing situation. It came as a shock to know that he had decided to disregard the Prime Minister’s assessment that there was no need for a vote of confidence, as budget deliberations would establish whether or not the government had the right to continue. What is even more disappointing is the fact that he did not feel it necessary to call the Prime Minister and inform him of his reasons for preferring a different course of action, and give him the right to reply.

It could not have escaped the President’s attention that the opposition, being gravely fissured, would have difficulty in moving and passing a no-confidence motion. Indeed, the government was known to be banking upon the lack of unanimity over moving such a motion in the first place. Narayanan’s directive, however, ensured an artificial unity on the issue of ousting the government, with little or no thought as to what would replace it.

Given the crisis in which we find ourselves today, it is legitimate to ask if there is a pattern in the President’s behaviour. Is he the nation’s conscience or catalyst? I do not wish to cast aspersions on the First Citizen, who was elected to his august office by a consensus of almost all political parties. In fact, the BJP even annoyed its ally, the Shiv Sena, by refusing support to former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan.

Nevertheless, some facts are disturbing. For instance, there was no good reason for his returning the government’s recommendation for Central rule in Bihar last year. It only served to embarrass the government and give it the image of being weak and helpless. Then, there were some absolutely unwarranted observations about the appointment of judges to the highest echelons of the judiciary, an issue that caused profound unease in all quarters, and cast unnecessary doubts about the manner in which judges were elevated to the Supreme Court. I mention this because at the time the controversy arose, concerned members of the legal profession felt that the President had betrayed a distinct caste bias, and had also indirectly expressed preference for a particular candidate. This raises the related issue of whether judges are being secretly politicised or encouraged to seek political patrons. And given the fact that the judiciary is the one institution that still commands public respect, this is probably the last thing we need in these troubled times.

But, what was even worse, was the President’s unprecedented reaction to the single, albeit barbaric, incident involving the missionary Graham Staines and his sons. As this heinous crime was condemned by all, there was absolutely no need for a separate presidential comment. But the President went further and virtually indicted the ruling party for the incident (though the alleged killer is said to be close to a sitting Congress minister) by making it known that he had specifically changed his Republic Day address to incorporate the need to combat ‘communalism,’ a well-known euphemism for the BJP.

In fact, he seemed to realize that he had been unduly outspoken and tried to balance matters by condemning the massacre of Dalits in Bihar the next day, after which he signed the proclamation for President’s rule. Even in the present crisis, he realized his constitutional obligations only with hindsight, as a result of which his message to the government to pass the budget came well after the moves and counter-moves on the confidence motion were underway.

The BJP has caught him in a cleft stick by demanding he follow the same procedures he adopted last year before inviting a new leader to form the government (something that appears impossible even theoretically), and taking the view that it is now for him to take the initiative on passing the budget. George Fernandes has compounded his misery by demanding that he give Vajpayee another chance to form the government, a view, I suspect, constitutional experts and many others would go along with. Given the sharp divisions demonstrated on the floor of the House last Saturday, the President has his task cut out for him. He can make a beginning by directing the Speaker and the Election Commission to sort out the status of Mr Giridhar Gomango. Will he, for instance, be allowed to vote again – this time to help Congress win a vote of confidence?


The Pioneer,  21 April 1999

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