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Will the President call a mid-term poll?

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in New Delhi

With just a day left for Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda to prove his majority in Parliament, all eyes are set on President Shankar Dayal Sharma. For it is he who will decide what happens next if the United Front government loses the vote of confidence on Friday.

Last May, the President invited Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee to form the government as it was the single largest party in Parliament. However, Vajpayee resigned in 13 days as he could not muster the support of 272 MPs, the simple majority figure in the Lok Sabha.

Congress leader P V Narasimha Rao, who headed the second largest party in the Lok Sabha, then sent a letter to the President, informing him that the Congress would support the UF government. H D Deve Gowda was thus sworn in as prime minister on June 1, 1996.

The situation now is no different from what it was last year. No party has an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. And though Congress president Sitaram Kesri told the President on March 30 that the Congress staked a claim to form the government, ten days later it is unclear how he will prove his majority in the Lok Sabha.

Even if the United Front loses a vote of confidence, it is unlikely that the coalition will send a letter to the President, agreeing to support a Congress-led government.

Says S Jaipal Reddy, the United Front spokesman, ''There is no question of sending a letter to the President from our side stating that we will support a Congress-led government. We are ready for a snap poll rather than a Congress government at the Centre.''

In that case, will the President ask the BJP, the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, to form a government once again? Or can he dissolve the Lok Sabha if the prime minister advises him to do so if the UF government loses the vote of confidence?

Fali Nariman, the distinguished lawyer and president of the Bar Association of India, told Rediff On The NeT, "The President has to act and does act on the advice tendered to him by the council of ministers with the prime minister as its head. I feel there is no occasion for the President to act in his personal capacity.''

Historically, the President has dissolved the Lok Sabha on the prime minister's advice. In 1979, then President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy dissolved the Lok Sabha on Charan Singh's advice. The then prime minister passed up the opportunity to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha.

However, according to Soli Sorabjee, the former solicitor general and celebrated constitutional lawyer, ''The framers of the Constitution clearly intended to repose faith in the President. As head of State, he has the freedom to decide whether or not to dissolve the Lok Sabha.''

When Rajiv Gandhi withdrew support to the four-month-old Chandra Shekhar government in 1991, then prime minister Chandra Shekhar did not ask the President for time to prove his majority in Parliament. Instead, he asked the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha. Which then President R Venkataraman did after careful consideration.

This time though, the President has another problem to contend with. The Presidential election.

The President's term ends on July 21 and the Presidential election has to be completed before that date.

In case the President dissolves the Lok Sabha this week, then a mid-term election has to be called before July. An electoral college has to be in place before the Presidential election is scheduled. The President is elected by members of the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the state legislative assemblies.

Says Justice Rajinder Sachar, former chief justice of the Delhi high court, ''The country may find itself in a constitutional crisis if Deve Gowda's government is voted out. There is no obligation on the President that he has to call some other party to try to form an alternative government."

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