Saturday, May 16, 2009

Should Manmohan Singh seek a vote of confidence?

Well, the latest results suggest that the UPA may end up with 260 seats. Important Congress leaders like Kamal Nath have declared on television that the party is averse to seeking support from post-poll allies to make up the shortfall of 13 seats. The Fourth Front, which has 27 MPs may be willing to support, but the Congress is reluctant to accept it because of the hidden conditions of support which the Government may have to fulfil. Some independents have already extended support, said the Minister of State in PMO, Prithviraj Chauhan. The strength of Others is 29. Is the UPA hopeful of securing the support of 13 Independent MPs among these Others? What will be their conditions for extending support? The question can well be asked, is it necessary to fill this shortfall?

The BJP has clearly said that though the verdict is not a clear majority, it believes that the mandate favours UPA. The Left parties too have declared that they would not question the majority character of Manmohan Singh Government.

If you look at it academically, if there is a gap between the majority required, and the actual strength of the alliance forming the Government, it is a cause for concern with regard to the stability of the Government. It is immaterial whether this gap is huge or narrow: because Governments can be destabilised even by one MP as we had seen in 1999 when the Vajpayee Government fell.

Realistically, however, it is not a ground for denying a claim of such alliance to form the Government. There is no Constitutional bar on minority Governments from being formed. Should such a Government be asked to prove its strength in the Lok Sabha at the earliest? Well, that can be an invitation to Opposition to gang up, when no one in the Opposition has questioned the lack of majority of the new Government being formed. The President ought not to impose such conditions on the Government. Article 75(3) only requires that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People.

There are at least four similar precedents. In 1969, Indira Gandhi was reduced to a minority because of the split in the Congress. The Left parties extended issue-based support to her; she did not have to prove her majority.

In 1998, the newly formed Vajpayee Government had to seek a vote of confidence, as President Narayanan specifically asked it to do so. The President said in his communique: "The number of MPs supporting the formation of a government by the BJP now comes to 264. This number - 264 - remains short of the halfway mark in the total House of 539. However, when seen in the context of the TDP's decision as conveyed to the President by Shri Chandrababu Naidu, to remain neutral, the number of 264 does cross that mark." It was, therefore, a paradox why Narayanan requested Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence within 10 days. He could have spared the Government of this unnecessary stress when he was satisfied with its majority strength. It is tempting to compare the present situation with 1998. None of the parties comprising the Third and Fourth Fronts have declared, unlike the TDP in 1998 - that they would remain neutral. Narayanan probably requested the PM to seek a vote of confidence, in view of the uncertainty surrounding his formation of the Government. The AIADMK and its allies had delayed the submission of formal letters of support to Vajpayee, and Naidu had only telephonically said he would remain neutral.

In 1991, P.V.Narasimha Rao, also heading a minority Government, moved a motion seeking confidence in his Ministry on the advice of the President, R.Venkataraman. The BJP, which was puzzled at Rao's action, opposed the motion, and the Third Front parties abstained. There were 36 vacancies in the House,because elections were not held in Punjab and J&K. Rao won the motion. The President was incorrect in suggesting to Rao to seek confidence in his ministry. In 2008, when Manmohan Singh Government lost the support of the Left Front, Singh decided to seek a vote of confidence on his own, and proved his majority.

The inference from these precedents would be that Manmohan Singh must seek a vote of confidence himself, without the President asking him to do so. But each of these precedents cited here was unique, and the facts and circumstances preceding the debate on confidence motion are not exactly similar to the present situation. As long as there is no serious challenge to Manmohan Singh's claim to form the Government, there is no need to test his majority strength in the Lok Sabha.
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