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Opinion Op Ed 13 May 2019 As ‘zero hour& ...
Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

As ‘zero hour’ looms, a critical test for Kovind

Published May 13, 2019, 12:19 am IST
Updated May 13, 2019, 12:19 am IST
Ordinarily, the next Prime Minister should be sworn in by May 26, the day the present incumbent took the oath five years ago.
President Ram Nath Kovind
 President Ram Nath Kovind

We shall know in exactly 10 days from now whether the morbid stability of the past five years — when the country slipped on practically every measurable metric, and achievements of the past were corroded — will be prolonged, or change ushered in. On the result will depend the degree to which President Ram Nath Kovind might be taxed in the days to come.

The BJP has centred its election campaign on one man alone. If the scheme succeeds, that man is likely to win big. But there is an equal chance of failing big time since the bet is on a single horse. Perhaps this is why there has been a constant guessing game on for the past month on the nature of the next coalition government, no matter which party or individual gets to lead it.

 

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi is destined to return (with the nagging echo of EVM-related complaints in the background), Mr Kovind has very little work to do. Within the hour of the poll result, he can ask Mr Modi to take a fresh oath after submitting to the formality of the BJP parliamentary party electing him leader.

On the other hand, in the absence of Mr Modi’s return on the strength of a massive renewal of mandate, the President will be pushed for time if he has to consider deeply the course he is to adopt in the event of an ambiguous situation. The result will be officially communicated by the chief election commissioner to the Rashtrapati on May 23. Ordinarily, the next Prime Minister should be sworn in by May 26, the day the present incumbent took the oath five years ago.

That’s just so little time, especially if the scenario is made complex and tight by the result.

But no matter what, Mr Kovind may rest assured that he runs little risk of committing an act of unconstitutionality, even unconsciously. He must only guard against doing unthinkable (and perfectly stupid) things such as letting a leader with a relatively modest Lok Sabha following be sworn in as PM in the zany hope that such a choice is best suited in the circumstances to bring a stable government into being.

There is a view held by an Indian statesman with a lofty reputation — although this has not been committed to writing — that the time between the declaration of the poll result and the swearing-in of the Prime Minister by the Rashtrapati is the “zero hour of politics”.

Taken from the vocabulary of parliamentary practice, the so-called zero hour is the glorious time at the end of the Question Hour every day in the Indian Parliament when rules are relaxed to allow for representation of any matter by a MP without having to secure prior permission of the Chair. Thus, when it comes to calling upon a freshly-elected MP to assume the burden of being Prime Minister, it can turn out to be the opportunity for the President of India to be at his creative best.

The reason is that the Rashtrapati is on his own. He may consult anyone, but no one’s advice is binding. He becomes his own master in that narrow slat of time. Besides, he cannot be held to be in constitutional error, regardless of the choice he makes.

As former President Pranab Mukherjee notes in The Coalition Years, the last of the three volumes of his memoirs, “The amendment introduced in Article 74 of the Indian Constitution through the 42nd Amendment has settled the matter. The provision makes it clear that the President, in exercising his powers and discharging his responsibilities, is bound by the advice given to him by the council of ministers headed by the Prime Minister.”

It is quite clear that the President is untrammelled by any advice when the council of ministers presided by the Prime Minister is yet to come into existence. In that zone of time before the day breaks, the President may do as he pleases, just short of trying to command the waves as King Canute apocryphally did. But even if he chose to follow Canute’s example, he may be found to be in error in retrospect, but not in violation of his constitutional oath and responsibility.

In 1996, President Shankar Dayal Sharma called Atal Behari Vajpayee, the leader of the largest party in Parliament (which was well short of a majority), to form the government. That government lasted only 13 days. Vajpayee did not even take the trouble to conduct a vote of confidence, and resigned.

The President had evidently made a mistake by mechanically calling the leader of the largest party in a hung Parliament. He had not tried to read the political wind. In this regard, President R. Venkataraman before Dr Sharma, and President K.R. Narayanan after him, chose to exercise greater judiciousness. Unlike Dr Sharma, they tried to gauge the extent of support the aspirants had. Narayanan duly asked for letters of support from different parties for the PM aspirant they backed, and he duly issued press notes.

Ascertaining the degree of support enjoyed by an aspirant before s/he is asked to take oath (preceding the vote of confidence) is sensible, though this may be neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for success. But the President possesses no other safeguard. The difficulty that President Kovind is likely to face, however, is that of having too little time in which to make decisions of great moment. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that he has commenced consultations to make sense of what’s going on.

The most consequential persons in the land have demeaned themselves this election season by their utterances. This can only be taken to indicate a level of desperation on their part. When the election result comes, such persons are likely to exert pressure of a very high order in order to advance their cause. This may need to be resisted by wielders of constitutional authority. The President needs to be both alert and firm.

When the result of the 1989 election came, it was clear that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had lost the election, with his party coming in with only 197 seats, although it was the largest single party by far. The late Rajiv Gandhi informed the President that he would not throw his hat into the ring for PM since he had lost the election. It is futile to expect such standards by those in high places now. President Kovind should ready himself for any eventuality.

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