Which way will the President swing?

Now that Pranab Mukherjee no longer has to answer the Congress’ first family, will his priorities be shaped by a sense of correctness?

The victory of Pranab Mukherjee in last Sunday’s presidential election has triggered a bout of speculation over how he will handle his new responsibilities. Unlike the distant past when the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan was condemned to a largely ceremonial role owing to the presence of a strong Prime Minister with a commanding majority in Parliament, there is intense interest about how the President will conduct himself in the event no single party or pre-election formation secures a majority in the next general election.

The speculation is warranted. Despite the fact that President Mukherjee has been a Congress loyalist for most of his political life — apart from a two-year stint as the unsuccessful leader of a breakaway formation, his selection as the UPA candidate was mired in some confusion and uncertainty. There are grounds to believe that the selection of Mr Mukherjee was forced by the brief rebellion of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee. It is entirely possible that had the threat of former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam also jumping into the fray not been there, either Hamid Ansari or Meira Kumar may have ended up as the Congress’ choice. It is fair to assume that Mr Mukherjee, despite his high standing, suffered from a trust deficit with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
The reason for this wariness is said to be located in the stand Mr Mukherjee took in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. At that time Mr Mukherjee proffered the view, based entirely on his understanding of precedents, that President Zail Singh should swear in the seniormost member of the Cabinet as the interim Prime Minister. In both 1964 and 1966, after the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, President S. Radhakrishnan had administered the oath of office to Gulzari Lal Nanda. It was after the funerals that the Congress Parliamentary Party met to elect their leader.
To say that Mr Mukherjee was guided by personal ambition is a conjecture. Judging by his personality, particularly his obsessive fascination with history and precedents, it is equally fair to argue that he was merely trying to be correct. Looking back, it seems outrageous that an ordinary general secretary of the Congress, a person with no administrative experience, was sworn in as Prime Minister. Regardless of the fact that Rajiv Gandhi was unanimously endorsed by the CPP subsequently, the question arises: On what basis did Giani Zail Singh take his decision? By that logic, President Mukherjee will be within his rights to appoint Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh as interim Prime Minister in the event of an unexpected vacancy in 7, Race Course Road. If that sounds preposterous, how can the President’s decision in 1984 be justified? A break from convention cannot, after all, be justified because the beneficiary is a member of a particular family.
What is clear from the extraordinary events of 1984 — never adequately scrutinised because of the extraordinary circumstances of Indira Gandhi’s death — is that there are discretionary powers available in the hands of the President to shape the course of politics. Because of special circumstances, it is unlikely that there would have been a challenger to Rajiv Gandhi for the top job. Nevertheless, the President’s decision presented the CPP with a fait accompli. The MPs were left with just no other choice in the matter.
In 1984, Mr Mukherjee was extremely courageous by putting propriety over reckless innovation. For this miscalculation he paid a very heavy price. Yet, now that he no longer has to answer to the Congress’ first family, are his priorities going to be shaped by this sense of correctness? The fear that President Mukherjee will not allow his personal preferences to allow any constitutional subterfuge has been uppermost in the minds of those who see politics as the quest for power at all costs.
The problem, however, is that there are just too many conflicting precedents. In 1989, 1991 and 1996, the President invited the leader of the single-party to form the government. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi turned down the offer because he did not command a majority. However, in 1996, Atal Behari Vajpayee formed a government despite not having a majority. The BJP failed to muster the additional numbers in 13 days of office and the government fell.
As a result of the 1996 experience, President K.R. Narayanan demanded to see letters of support from potential allies when he invited Mr Vajpayee (who was head of both the largest party and the largest pre-poll alliance) in 1998. The President wanted to satisfy himself that the new government was in a position to secure a majority. However, it was this same principle that came in the way of Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister in 1999. There is little doubt that had the Congress formed the government, its natural resourcefulness would have enabled it to cobble together a majority. Indeed, President Narayanan went beyond the call of office and actually tried to persuade Mulayam to extend support — an act which can be justified by the desire to avoid a second election a year after the previous one. But it didn’t quite work out.
Of course, the ultimate test of majority is in Parliament. But the President has a range of options to choose from to determine who will have the first throw of the dice. The next two years will witness endless star gazing to determine what he deems will be most appropriate. The President’s discretionary powers are adding to the nervousness in the political class.

The writer is a senior journalist

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