Theft of the Republic

There can be no escaping the conclusion that the Indian people are victims of a presidential coup d’etat. From that fateful evening nearly two weeks ago when he directed the Prime Minister to seek a vote of confidence, to Sunday’s virtual command that the cabinet recommend dissolution of the Lok Sabha, President K.R. Narayanan has acted in a manner inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the constitution. Never, since Fakruddin Ali Ahmad’s midnight proclamation of the Emergency, has the democratic process been trifled with so peremptorily.

Prime Minister Vajpayee has demonstrated great statesmanship by advising his party and allies to exercise restraint vis-à-vis the President’s conduct. He has also steered his cabinet to accept the unjustified suggestion of dissolution of the House rather than seek restoration of his government, a move that would have been welcomed by the common man and industry alike. However, elections are now fait accompli. But as the world’s largest democracy that helplessly witnessed itself held to ransom by petty desires and small egos, we must examine the recent past if we wish to avoid such pitfalls in future.

In the nearly two weeks of networking among the political parties since voting began on the confidence motion, the principal opposition leaders did not hold a single joint meeting to iron out their differences and chalk out an alternative to the Vajpayee-led coalition. This point is important, because even after Congress president Sonia Gandhi met the President last Friday to confess that she was nowhere near the promised figure of 272 MPs, that august luminary gave her an extra two days to attempt to cobble up a non-BJP government. No reasonable explanation has emanated from Rashtrapati Bhavan as to why this extra time was given. Since the President simultaneously sought to allay the government’s fears about giving the opposition such a long rope, by assuring Jaswant Singh that BJP was also in the reckoning, he owes the people an explanation for his failure to keep his word.

It was fairly obvious that there were serious obstacles to the formation of an alternative government. This is because most players entered the arena with multiple agendas that were at variance with each others’ interests, which made both accommodation and reconciliation a diplomat’s nightmare. As it happens, there was not even a sincere attempt to reconcile differences or accommodate genuine needs because the principal actors – the CPM and Sonia Gandhi – had all along decided not to go in for an honest coalition.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet believed he could bully the opposition to endorse the pre-determined strategy of a Sonia Gandhi-led minority government, while the latter was arrogant enough to believe that they had no choice but to accept her leadership on her terms. As it happens, the Forward Block, RSP, and Mulayam Singh Yadav were astute enough to realize that they did have the choice of ousting Vajpayee and refusing to endorse a Sonia-CPM deal. The rest is history.

There are good reasons to believe that even parties that formally endorsed a Congress-led minority government were not happy with the manner in which it was thrust down their throats. Even had Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to commit political suicide, they would not have tolerated a Sonia dispensation for too long. The AIADMK general secretary, Dr Jayalalitha Jayaram, for instance, did not confine her list to dismissal of cases against her in various courts (assuming for a moment that this is possible). She also wanted associates like Sasikala to be bailed out; the Karunanidhi government dismissed (a tall order), and eventually a share in the Central pie.

Neither were Laloo Yadav or the Communists selfless in their endorsement of Congress. Laloo owed the Congress a favour for the revival of his wife’s disreputable government in Bihar. But he agreed to support Sonia Gandhi only because he knew that her first priority was revival of Congress in UP, and that she would leave Bihar out of her calculations for the time being. As for Surjeet, he wanted a return to the halcyon days when communists supported Indira Gandhi’s minority government in return for dominion over the nation’s academic life, particularly history, philosophy, and culture.

Among the principal actors in the drama, only Mulayam Singh Yadav did not have any short-term interests that could be reconciled with Congress supremacy. Hence he sought a coalition in which the parties shared power at the Centre and did not mess about with each other’s regional turf, until mid-term elections became inevitable. It was an honest position, and it is his misfortune that he was not given a fair hearing. To add insult to injury, both Congress and CPM tried to indict him for not committing harakiri in favour of the Congress!

Coming back to the President, he did not exactly cover himself with glory by allowing signora Gandhi to ‘advise’ (read direct) him about the future course of action last Friday, even though it was by then clear that no alternative to Vajpayee was likely to fructify. The lady also took the most unacceptable liberties with the truth. Prior to voting on the confidence motion, Congress let it be known that the party was open to the coalition idea. But between the fall of the government on Saturday and the passage of the budget on Thursday, no talks were held on these lines. Instead, attempts were made to blackmail the parties to accept a Sonia Gandhi-led minority government. On Friday evening, reporting failure to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the signora had the audacity to claim that the question of forming a coalition or non-Congress government had only just been mooted to her! She again tried to bully the opposition by putting the onus of keeping the BJP out on their shoulders.

Since the irreconcilable differences between the opposition parties were visible even to wishful thinkers, it is a crying shame that President Narayanan did not see fit to end the farce of a non-BJP government there and then. Any self-respecting person, taken for a ride in this manner, would have sought to redeem his personal honour by making amends to the wronged party. Unfortunately, the President compounded the mischief by giving the signora an extra forty-eight hours (in which too, she could do nothing).

What is even more disturbing in this sordid episode is the fact that none of the principal players – Sonia Gandhi, Arjun Singh, Surjeet, Jayalalitha – is a Member of Parliament. Yet the President allowed himself to be guided by their whims and fancies. Having raised a storm in the country’s political and economic life, he cannot refuse to come out of harbour by claiming refuge in constitutional privilege.

President Narayanan is guilty of an unprecedented assault on the political executive, of destabilising a government that had performed commendably over a year, and was settling down after the exit of a molotov cocktail from Tamil Nadu. He has also struck a body blow at the economy at a moment when it was poised for an elegant take-off after years in the doldrums. He is answerable for the enormous loss suffered by ordinary citizens as stock markets went into a tizzy on account of the turmoil into which he had led the country. He owes the nation an explanation for his actions. And having conclusively demonstrated his inability to uphold the constitution, he also owes the nation his resignation.

The Pioneer, 27 April 1999

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