PRESIDENT Pratibha Patil came to office as India’s first woman Head of State two years ago amidst a blaze of controversy but apart from fulfilling constitutional duties and protocol requirements, she has mostly stayed away from the limelight. Not for long though. This Saturday, the election results will be out and assuming the elections throw up a hung and terribly divided house, who gets to govern will depend to a large measure on whom the president invites to form the next government.
In similar elections in the past where no single party won a majority, vastly different precedents have been set. In 1996, President Shankar Dayal Sharma went strictly by the book and invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee after the BJP emerged the single largest party winning 161 seats against 140 won by the Congress.
It’s a different matter that Vajpayee quit after only 13 days in office acknowledging his government’s inability to reach the magic halfway mark in parliament. Two years later, KR Narayanan authored what is now known as the Narayanan Formula. Though the BJP had won 182 seats against the Congress’s 141 and Vajpayee staked his claim for prime ministership, he tread a new path and gave both parties enough time to win over enough allies, insisting on written letters of support.
It wasn’t until Jayalalithaa faxed a message to Rashtrapati Bhavan that Vajpayee was finally invited to form the government and the NDA was born. In 2004 after the voters gave a stinging rebuke to the NDA, the Congress staked claim and hastily put together the UPA. Suprisingly, it lasted five years but now it is clearly coming apart.
It is in this context that various statements by Congress leaders in recent times have to be seen. Party leaders now flit from one TV studio to another essentially to reiterate the same point: that the president must invite the leader of the single largest party, which they believe the Congress will be. Just a little over a month ago, when the UPA seemed one big happy family, the emphasis was on alliances and not the single largest party.
Much has changed since then and the Congress is now the nominal head of an alliance that exists on paper. Lalu, Mulayam and Paswan are gone; fears of a Jayalalithaa revival have sent Karunanidhi to hospital; Sharad Pawar is so tense about the NCP’s fortunes he finds the IPL matches less nailbiting; record voting in West Bengal indicate the Congress- Trinamool Mahajyot will fall victim to the CPI(M)’s scientific rigging. On the other side, the BJP’s NDA allies, if reports from the states are to be believed, are all expected to fare better than last time. Barring perhaps the Akali Dal which may surrender a few seats, the JD(U) in Bihar, Chautala’s INLD, Ajit Singh’s RLD, the AGP in Assam and the Shiv Sena are all expected to better their last results.
Results out, there will be much scrambling for allies and President Patil will have to choose between the NDA’s arranged marriage which was fixed pre-poll and the many post poll shotgun weddings that the UPA has plans for. I am told she takes daily briefings from a panel of legal experts who are poring over presidential notes from 1989 when India’s first minority government headed by VP Singh was sworn in. It’s a tough task. But she has the chance to wipe her hands clean off the controversies that surrounded her arrival in office.