The situation in Karnataka pits the claim of the single largest minority against a post-poll combination equipped with a clear majority. Governor Vajubhai Vala has the discretion to invite any leader to form the government. But he must make a choice keeping in mind the leader’s ability to prove his majority on the floor of the House, and to provide a stable government. As the Governor makes his choice, here is some relevant background.
The central government set up the Justice R S Sarkaria Commission in June 1983 to examine the relationship and balance of power between state and central governments. The Commission, which dealt with the role of Governors, suggested that in choosing a Chief Minister, the Governor should be guided by the following principles:
*The party or combination of parties that command the widest support in the Legislative Assembly should be called to form the government.
* The Governor’s task is to see that a government is formed — and not to try to form a government that will pursue policies that he approves.
* If no party has a majority, the Governor has to invite: a) a pre-poll alliance, b) the largest single party that is able to gain majority support, c) a post-election coalition that has the required members, d) a post-election coalition in which partners are willing to extend outside support.
The Commission recommended that the Chief Minister must seek a vote of confidence in the Assembly within 30 days of taking over. It also said the Governor should not risk determining the issue of majority support outside the Assembly, and that the prudent course would be to have the claims tested on the floor of the House.
A Commission headed by former Chief Justice of India M M Punchhi was set up in April 2007 to take a fresh look at the roles and responsibilities of governments at various levels, and the relations between them. The Commission recommended that there should be clear guidelines for the appointment of Chief Ministers, so that there was some sort of regulation on the discretionary power of the Governor.
It said that a pre-poll alliance must be treated as one political party, and laid down the order of precedence that the Governor must follow in case of a hung House:
1) Group with the largest pre-poll alliance commanding the largest number;
2) Single largest party with support of others;
3) Post-electoral coalition with all parties joining the government;
4) Post-electoral alliance with some parties joining the government, and the remaining, including Independents, supporting from outside.
Venkataraman’s thumb rule
Faced with hung Lok Sabhas in 1989 and 1991, President R Venkataraman followed the thumb rule of inviting parties to form the government strictly in the order of their strength in Lok Sabha. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was invited as the leader of the single largest party (193 members in the new Lok Sabha), but Rajiv declined saying the mandate was against him. Venkataraman then invited Vishwanath Pratap Singh, leader of the second largest party, the Janata Dal, who had the support of both the BJP and Left. In 1991 again, the Congress was the single largest party, but short of majority. Venkataraman invited P V Narasimha Rao, who had to prove his majority. Rao did so quite easily.
Applying the same principle, Venkataraman’s successor Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996. Vajpayee had the support of 194 members in the 535-member House. However, pitted against 177 members of the United Front and 136 of the Congress, Vajpayee quit within 13 days of having been sworn in.
Narayanan and Kalam
The 1998 Lok Sabha elections, too, threw up a fractured verdict. President K R Narayanan meticulously verified the letters of support Vajpayee had got from various parties, even though the Congress, the main Opposition party, had not staked claim. In 2004, the NDA won 187 seats, and the Congress and its pre-poll allies, 216. Left parties, with 61 seats, gave letters of support to the Congress. President A P J Adbul Kalam invited the Congress.
Since last year BJP coalition governments took over in Goa and Manipur last year, and in Meghalaya this March even though the party did not have a majority in the Assembly, and wasn’t the single-largest party either. In Goa, the Congress won 17 seats in the 40-member House, while the incumbent BJP saw its tally being reduced to 13. But the BJP still returned to power, backed by three members each of the Goa Forward Party and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, and three Independents. The Congress challenged the invitation extended to the BJP’s Manohar Parrikar by Governor Mridula Sinha in the Supreme Court, which declined to stay Parrikar’s swearing in, but asked him to take a floor test.
In Manipur too, the Congress had emerged as the single largest party, winning 28 of the 60 Assembly seats. The BJP got 21. However, the BJP managed to get the backing of four members each of the Naga People’s Front and National Peoples Party, and one from the Lok Janshakti Party. Governor Najma Heptulla invited BJP leader N Biren Singh to form the government. She told reporters that it was not “incumbent upon a Governor” to call the single largest party, rather, her “responsibility… is to see who has got the majority, who will be working for the interest of the state and have stability”.
In Meghalaya, the BJP, despite having won just two seats, outmanoeuvered the Congress, the single largest party with 21 seats out of 60. It brought together 34 MLAs — the National People’s Party of Conrad Sangma (19), United Democratic Party (6), People’s Democratic Front (4), Hill State People’s Democratic Party (2) and one Independent.
Ironically though, Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala on Tuesday cited the instances of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya to press the Congress-JD(S) claim in Karnataka. Governor Vajubhai Vala, he said, had no option except to invite the new coalition, which had a “clear majority” in the House.