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Split verdict likely, President has a plan

india Updated: May 14, 2009 01:34 IST

Twenty two months after Pratibha Devisingh Patil stepped into Rashtrapati Bhavan and history books as India’s first woman President, she is up for her first big challenge: choosing India’s next Prime Minister.

And it is likely to be a tough first test. All major and minor exit poll results announced on Wednesday were similar: no clear winner; get ready for a hung House.

Rashtrapati Bhavan officials suggested that she was already on the job.

“The President is closely observing the pre-election scenario… she is taking note of the media reports,” Officer on Special Duty at the presidential office, Archana Dutta said.

“She will hold consultations with legal and constitutional experts at an appropriate time.”

Government functionaries familiar with the line of thinking at Rashtrapati Bhavan suggest that the single largest political party — rather than the largest pre-poll alliance — may get the first offer to form the government.

But it will be a week or so before she is called upon to take a call. The results will be known on Saturday and then it would be another two or three days before the Election Commission formally closes the election process.

For now, Rashtrapati Bhavan is hoping that when the votes locked away in the 12 lakh electronic machines are counted this Saturday, they deliver a clear verdict.

But India hasn’t seen a single political party getting a simple majority of 272 seats, or close, in two decades.

Patil already has a bunch of papers that tell much the same story. And how her predecessors dealt with the situation.

When faced with a hung parliament in 1989 - the first - President R Venkataraman sounded out the Congress, the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. But Rajiv Gandhi knew that the Congress would not be able to muster support and declined. The offer went next to VP Singh, who formed the National Front government with support from the Left and BJP.

Shankar Dayal Sharma followed the same principle when he invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee to form the government as leader of the single largest party in 1996. Unlike Rajiv Gandhi, Vajpayee took up the offer, but failed to get the numbers. This turned out to be the shortest central government ever.

It was in this backdrop that K.R. Narayanan set the precedent in 1998 - he stuck to it in 1999 too - that required claimants to the prime minister's seat to produce evidence that they could provide a stable government.

Narayanan believed the president had "full discretion" in appointing the prime minister. So he introduced the practice of issuing detailed communiqués to explain the reasoning of his exercise of discretion.

There is no clear view at Rashtrapati Bhavan if Patil should stick to this precedent and ask the largest party to produce evidence of support from their coalition partners.

Though the Congress too had submitted letters from supporting parties before Manmohan Singh got a formal invite from President APJ Abdul Kalam in 2004, a strong case is being made out for the President to not get into counting heads. She should instead ask the Prime Minister to take a floor test.