With a hung Parliament being forecast by all the exit polls, the focus is now on the President, Pratibha Patil. There is a consensus veering around among the observers that she must ask for letters of support in respect of a claimant, and only if the numbers reveal a reasonable prospect of the Government surviving the floor test in the new House, she must invite the claimant to form a Government. But things are not as straight-forward as it may seem to be. Let us imagine that NDA with its post-poll allies is able to convince the President of the support of 250 MPs through letters of support. But the Congress, with its pre and post-poll allies is able to muster only 240, but is assured of the Left's abstention (let us again imagine that Left has 35). Is the President bound to follow the precedents set by her predecessors and invite the NDA, knowing fully well that opposition to it outnumbers its supporters? The Left may not be willing to give a letter of support to the Congress, though its abstention during the confidence vote could signal its support.
Let us understand the sequence of events in 1998 as evident from my article here. First, President K.R.Narayanan invited Vajpayee because as he said, BJP was the single largest party, and he headed the largest combination of pre-election allies. Since Vajpayee satisfied the first two conditions, the President did not find it necessary to know whether there is a post-election coalition which is a claimant. Secondly, he asked Vajpayee whether he would be able and willing to form the stable government which could secure the confidence of the Lok Sabha. He did not ask Vajpayee whether he could win the trust vote in the Lok Sabha. Thirdly, he sought letters of support from Vajpayee to sustain his claim that he had support of 252 members. Please note he did not want to be convinced that Vajpayee could secure the support of 272 members. On March 12, 1998 when he met the President, he had proof of support of only 237 Members of Lok Sabha; therefore, he did not stake his claim, but left it to the President's discretion. More important, the President took into consideration the Telugu Desam Party's stand - ascertained in a telephonic discussion with its leader N. Chandrababu Naidu - that the party would remain neutral during the vote of confidence. The President did not even seek a letter of support from Trinamul Congress. Once the AIADMK-led alliance's decision to extend support to Vajpayee became known, the President invited Vajpayee to form the Government. Vajpayee was still short of the magic figure of 272; still, he was able to convince the President that he would be able to secure the confidence of the House.
Narayanan issued a detailed communique each time there was a political crisis. On March 15, 1998,he explained how he was convinced of Vajpayee's capacity to form a stable Government. Thus he explained why he had to dissolve the Lok Sabha in 1999. Narayanan's successor, President Kalam did not follow this tradition, while prematurely dissolving Lok Sabha in February 2004. It is hoped that President Patil will revive the tradition of explaining her decisions during the process of appointing a new Prime Minister, after the election results.
UPDATE: With the certainty of Manmohan Singh returning as the PM, the President has been spared of this Constitutional dilemma.