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March 6, 1998


The Rediff Election Special/ Shalabh Kumar

Why not a composite poll?

There has been some debate about what the President should do in the current parliamentary situation. The last time we had a hung Parliament, the President went by the book and the outcome was not entirely to the nation's good. We had a BJP government for 13 days, and two UF-led, Congress 'supported' travesties, of approximately a year each. Going by the book is not clearly the solution.

Constitutional experts argue the President has to invite either the leader of the BJP-led front or the leader of the Congress-led front, based on declarations of support by the smaller parties. The issue of majority is, then, determined later in the vote of confidence. This is deemed to be constitutionally correct. There are two problems with this method.

First, this is exactly what Romesh Bhandari did in UP, to much hue and cry. Declarations of support are mere statements of intent. The proof of the pudding is in eating it, in this case in the actual voting on the Parliament floor. An individual, whether it is the President or governor, can make the wrong decision based on false declarations of support. To put the power of decision in the hands of the President, prior to a parliamentary test of strength, worked well when the majority party/front was obvious to everyone. The majority front wasn't obvious in 1996 and it isn't today. New situations call for new solutions.

Second, much of what is 'constitutional' is really what has been practised. But we do not have an established practice for 'selecting' the executive from a hung Parliament. It is obvious to most observers that with the plurality of interests the Lok Sabha now represents, it is unlikely that any election in the near future will throw up a clear winner. The constitutional practice of inviting the leader of the largest party assumes that the largest party will have a simple majority. The assumption is wrong. Hence, at stake, is not just a solution for the situation today but also for the next few election.

The solution needs to be fair to all parties but it is the interest of the country that takes precedence. The country needs a dose of governance (Note that I do not talk of effective governance, just governance.) We quickly need to establish a government which gets down to the business of running the country, without worrying everyday about parliamentary arithmetic. I fail to see the point of inviting any group to form the government, before the group has established its majority in Parliament. It just leads to the ridiculous spectacle of governments lasting for varying short-term periods, in a game of musical chairs.

The composite poll offers a part solution to the hung Parliament issue. It tests the strengths of the claimants before the formation of the government. This ensures that whichever front actually forms the government enjoys majority support at that point of time. The issue of what happens later still needs to be resolved; more about it a little later.

The methodology of the composite poll is based on the principle of forced choice. If the MPs are forced to support one front, either the BJP or the Congress, one of them will definitely get a majority. If this composite poll is carried out immediately as soon as the Lok Sabha is convened then we will not only reduce the period of uncertainty, but also reduce the incidence of horse trading.

The situation in the 12th Lok Sabha is in fact still reasonably straight forward. There are really only two alternatives -- a BJP led front with support from some smaller groups or a Congress/UF combine of some form. The situation could be far more complex, if the parliamentary strengths of these three groups were more evenly distributed. If we accept the principle of forced choice, which is what the composite poll is, we effectively have solutions for future scenarios also. If there are three or more groups of equal strength, vote first to narrow it down to two and then, vote to choose one from the final two. This means that each party is being forced to take a stand on the parliamentary floor, a far stronger mechanism than any declaration of support.

I would, in fact, recommend going further than voting for just a party/front. Each contending front should actually nominate its full quota of Cabinet ministers, prior to the composite poll. That makes clear which parties will actually be a part of the government of each group and which will 'support' it from outside. The parties which choose not to align themselves with any group prior to the composite poll commit to stay out of the government. This mechanism also tackles the problem of ministerial positions being used to 'buy' votes in the composite poll.

The President in this entire system plays the role of an impartial referee. On him falls the onus of selecting the contenders, but not of choosing the winner. Thus, it is the President who determines that, based on parliamentary strength, it will be the BJP and the Congress who will be the contenders in the composite poll. It will be the responsibility of these parties to nominate a prime ministerial candidate and other Cabinet ministers acceptable to all the parties supporting them.

There is nothing in the composite poll method which prevents the recurrence of the 'withdrawal of support' phenomenon. The government, thus elected, will remain beholden to various parties which supported it in the composite poll. Forcing supporting parties to join the government reduces the risk of withdrawal to some extent. Yet, there is nothing preventing a Kesri from withdrawing support on a felt slight or a whim. This remains a fundamental problem with our governance structure.


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