The President is seen to be a largely titular figure in India’s parliamentary system of government, but from time to time he or she can be in a make or break position. With coalitions becoming the norm rather than single party rule, it is the President who may have to take the call on who should be invited to form the government or what course of action to follow when a ruling coalition loses support. The increasing fragmentation in both the main coalitions, the UPA and the NDA, and resurgence of regional satraps, suggests that the new President too may soon be faced with tricky issues such as these.
Now a new book by former President APJ Abdul Kalam provides a first-hand account of the situations he found himself in, particularly after the 2004 election when none of the parties was anywhere near the figure required to form a government on its own. In the following excerpt from Turning Points, published by HarperCollins and releasing next week, Kalam recounts the meetings he had with the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, during those tumultuous days:
The Congress party had the largest number of members elected. In spite of that, three days had passed and no party or coalition had come forward to form the government. It was a cause of concern for me and I asked my secretaries and rushed a letter to the leader of the largest party – in this case the Congress – to come forward and stake the claim for forming the government.
I was told that Sonia Gandhi was meeting me at 12.15 in the afternoon of 18 May. She came in time but instead of coming alone she came with Dr Manmohan Singh and had a discussion with me. She said that she had the requisite numbers but she did not bring the letter of support signed by party functionaries. She would come with the letters of support on the 19th, she said. I asked her, ‘Why do you postpone? We can even finish it this afternoon.’ She went away. Later I received a message that she would meet me in the evening, at 8.15 p.m.
While this communication was in progress, I had a number of emails and letters coming from individuals, organizations and parties that I should not allow Mrs Sonia Gandhi to become the prime minister of our country. I had passed on these mails and letters to various agencies in the government for their information without making any remarks.
During this time there were many political leaders who came to meet me to request me not to succumb to any pressure and appoint Mrs Gandhi as the prime minister, a request that would not have been constitutionally tenable. If she had made any claim for herself I would have had no option but to appoint her.
At the allotted time, 8.15 p.m., Mrs Gandhi came to Rashtrapati Bhavan along with Dr Manmohan Singh. In this meeting, after exchanging pleasantries, she showed me the letters of support from various parties. Thereupon, I said that is welcome. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is ready for the swearing-in ceremony at the time of your choice.
That is when she told me that she would like to nominate Dr Manmohan Singh, who was the architect of economic reforms in 1991 and a trusted lieutenant of the Congress party with an impeccable image, as the prime minister. This was definitely a surprise to me and the Rashtrapati Bhavan Secretariat had to rework the letter appointing Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister and inviting him to form the government at the earliest.
Finally, the swearing-in took place on 22 May with Dr Manmohan Singh and sixty-seven ministers in the splendid Ashoka Hall. I breathed a sigh of relief that this important task had finally been done. However, I did puzzle over why no party had staked a claim for three days.