Once the votes for the 16th Lok Sabha are counted, the president will have to invite the leader of a political party to form the Union government. When a general election returns a single party with an absolute majority, the president has no choice but to call upon the leader of that party to form the government. But if no party wins such a majority, the president has to make an informed judgement call and select the leader of a party to form a government. Textbooks on constitutional law state that this person would normally, but not invariably, be the leader of the single largest party.
However, the circumstances may rule out an invitation to the leader of the single largest minority. For instance, when it is clear that other parties will not support him. It is in such a situation that the president’s discretion becomes crucial. He must assess the situation emerging from a House divided by several parties and, after consultations with the leaders of parties and other politicians, and after seeking such advice as he deems necessary, choose a person who he believes can form a government that has a reasonable prospect of enduring. The president must be seen to have acted fairly, without any predilection, and to stand above the dust and din of politics. At times, this can be a very difficult choice for the president.
Former president R. Venkataraman proposed a simplistic rule of invitation in the order of the strength of the political parties in a hung Parliament. He maintained that this would be the most prudent and uncontroversial course of action. In his view, once the leader of the largest party is invited, the president should not look for the quantum of support for him or her; the supporters of such a leader should demonstrate their backing in the House itself. Venkataraman claims to have applied this rule for two hung Parliaments, after the elections of 1989 and 1991.
No party secured an absolute majority for the ninth Lok Sabha in 1989, and the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi was the largest minority party, with 193 MPs. After Rajiv Gandhi declined to form government, the president invited V.P. Singh, leader of the second largest party, the Janata Dal.
In 1991, too, no single party had an absolute majority and the Congress emerged as the single largest party. Venkataraman invited P.V. Narasimha Rao to form the government. Rao won an immediate confidence motion in the Lok Sabha. Though the BJP and the Left parties were opposed to his government, they abstained as they were reluctant to face another election.
Venkataraman’s view is not a prescription for all situations. Inviting continued…
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