By Karan Thapar
Has democracy been “murdered” in Goa and Manipur? Has the first right to try and form a government been “stolen” from Congress? Or is the party mistaken about the principles on which a government is formed in a hung assembly?
It was the 1989 Lok Sabha election that produced the first hung Parliament in India. At the time President Venkataraman sought to create a government by calling upon leaders of parties according to the size of their Lok Sabha representation. If the leader of the biggest couldn’t form one he approached the next and so on.
However, this principle was President Venkataraman’s concoction. It has little basis in our constitution and differs with the practice of the House of Commons which, till then, we followed. Indeed, political parties are not even mentioned in the original unamended constitution.
The correct constitutional position is simple but, because it requires an act of subjective judgement, it can, on occasion, be messy. The person most likely to command a majority in the House is the person who should be called to form a government. When a political party has a majority its leader is presumed to be that person. In such circumstances the choice is simple.
However, when that is not the case and the leader of the second or even third largest party can command a majority he is the person who should be called to form a government. But this could require a subjective act of judgement which may become messy.
Because President Venkataraman did not want to make an assessment of which party had a majority, for fear of getting it wrong, he devised the seemingly objective principle of calling upon them in accordance with their size. But when this practice was followed by President Sharma in 1996 it led to the farcical 13-day minority BJP government although any credible assessment of the Lok Sabha would have established the existence of an alignment of parties with a clear majority.
In 2002, 2005 and 2013 governors in Kashmir, Jharkhand and Delhi acted very differently. They by-passed the single largest party to call on an alliance of smaller parties because it constituted a majority. In the process they overturned the Venkataraman principle thus questioning its continuing validity.
Now let’s return to Goa and Manipur. In both states the leader of the second largest party could prove to the Governor that he had majority support. Letters to that effect were handed over. This clinched the matter. Congress, though larger than BJP, had less support and, therefore, a weaker claim to be given the first opportunity to form a government.
Alas, the BJP hasn’t used this logic to justify what’s happened. Instead it’s argued that because both in Goa and Manipur its vote share is greater than Congress more people want a BJP government than a Congress one. Additionally, in Manipur it’s claimed that because Congress’s numbers collapsed from 42 to 28 the mandate is for a non-Congress government, an argument that goes against the BJP in Goa.
Unfortunately, this is spurious logic even if prima facie appealing. It’s not the percentage of votes but the number of seats that matters. That’s how the system works. The BJP’s logic could also support the conclusion that the mandate in 2014, when 70 per cent voted for parties other than the BJP, was for a non-BJP government.