As the UPA-Left stand-off over the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal continues, a mid-term poll for the Lok Sabha seems imminent. But it is necessary to pause a moment and wonder whether our system is inherently unstable. The ruling coalition at the Centre is not the first of its kind. Atal Behari Vajpayee Government almost completed its full term, despite many rebellious allies within the coalition. But those allies were too small to have threatened the survival of the Government, if they walked out of the coalition. The present arrangement, on the contrary, suggests that if the Left walks out, the Government would clearly be in a minority.

But are minority Governments illegal? There is nothing in the Constitution which suggests that. The Council of Ministers, under Article 75(3) shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People. Some pundits have interpreted this responsibility to mean ‘enjoying the confidence of the House of the People’. In reality, this understanding has further narrowed to enjoying the confidence of the majority of the members of the House.

But such an understanding has no basis in reality. In 1991, India first had a minority Government led by P.V.Narasimha Rao sworn in without any hitch. The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party then magnanimously said it would not move a no-confidence motion against the Government. The then President also did not insist on the Prime Minister seeking a confidence vote in the newly constituted Lok Sabha. The first serious no-confidence motion against the Rao Government was moved by the Opposition in 1993, two years after it was sworn-in.

The aberration with regard to asking the Prime Minister or a Chief Minister with not-so-clear majority in Lok Sabha and assembly to seek a confidence vote began, if I am right, in 1996, when Shankar Dayal Sharma asked Vajpayee to secure a confidence vote, after being sworn in. He quit after 13 days once it was clear the numbers were against him. Subsequently, Sharma’s successors followed this precedent, more or less. While Sharma simply sworn-in the leader of the single largest party as the Prime Minister, his successors were careful to first satisfy whether the Prime Minister-claimant would have enough numerical support in the Lok Sabha to secure a vote of confidence. Hence, letters of support from leaders of political parties forming the post-poll coalition claiming majority support were insisted upon by the Presidents. In the States, this precedent led to quite undesirable tendencies – parading of MLAs in Raj Bhavan and even Rashtrapati Bhavan.

In my view, the 1996 precedent set by Sharma was bad. Its flaw was in its assumption that a minority Government is per se illegal and unconstitutional. Had it been so, Narasimha Rao could not have been sworn-in as the Prime Minister. The issue is not whether a Prime Minister lacks the majority by a few seats (as in the case of Narasimha Rao) or suffers from a huge numerical disadvantage (as Manmohan would face, if Left withdraws support). Those who argue in favour of seeking a confidence vote, once the majority is disturbed, cite the 1979 precedent when Sanjeeva Reddy asked Charan Singh who toppled Morarji Desai to seek a confidence vote. Charan Singh, however, quit without facing the Lok Sabha, and continued as a caretaker Prime Minister till the conclusion of elections in 1980. But a bad precedent cannot become a binding rule.

Coming to the present situation, should Manmohan Singh quit if the Left officially withdraws support and informs the President of its decision? Manmohan Singh can do so on moral grounds, but legally and practically, his Government could survive in office even as a minority Government as Narasimha Rao did between from 1991 to 1993, when he managed a majority in Lok Sabha through political realignments.

What if the President asks Manmohan Singh to seek a vote of confidence, once the Left withdraws support? The Government could point out to the President that the precedent set earlier was incorrect, and the right course would be for the parties to move a no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha. No-confidence motions are supported by conventions, and Lok Sabha rules, and once the Government loses a motion, it is inevitable that it resigns. No-confidence motion would require the Opposition to come under one platform and be united in dislodging the Government. If the Opposition parties do not see eye to eye, (like the Left and the BJP), then the chances are that one may not choose to support a motion, initiated by another, not even by abstension. This may lead to disagreements within the Opposition on the merits of the motion itself, or how it should be worded etc.

Therefore, there is no harm if the President satisfies herself, soon after the conclusion of elections, that a group of parties would be able to command a majority in the Lok Sabha, so that the leader of that group could be invited to form the Government. Here also, if a minority leader stakes a claim, and if there are no serious challenges to that claim by that leader’s opponents, then the President could invite that minority leader to form the Government, and not insist on seeking a confidence vote. The issue of confidence must be left to the House to decide, if necessary, through a no-confidence motion.

The practice of Prime Minister/Chief Minister seeking a confidence vote is an aberration, and must stop to lend stability to the system. This is because members of a coalition may agree to disagree on certain issues, even while letting the Government to continue in office, because of the absence of scope for forming an alternative Government, or because a fresh election could not be held so soon after the earlier one, or because there is a likelihood of a fresh election again resulting in a similar combination of parties as in the present ruling coalition.
CORRECTION: Thanks to Mr.Srinivasan for correcting a major factual error in my post. The link which he has provided in the comments section (the Lok Sabha debates in 1991), reveals that there was a confidence motion moved by Narasimha Rao and the BJP opposed it, although Narasimha Rao was under no compulsion to move it.

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  • Sir,

    I agree with you. In fact in an ideal situation, MPs should be able to vote as per their own(or constituencies opinion) without regard to the ‘whip’ of the party to which they belong to. I am sure there are BJP members who support the deal and Congress MPs who oppose it and all MPs must have a right to vote as per his/her own opinion.

    At the core of the present issue lies an important constitutional point that has been on the cold storage for decades. It relates to the executive’s power to with regard to the entering into international agreements. This issue has been taken up by several committees (the latest being the constitutional review committee set up in early 2000s) but somehow no party has taken it up seriously. In the days of coalition politics and as ever vanishing demarcation between ‘international’ and domestic affairs it is important that smaller parties get an opportunity to have a say about an international agreement before it is signed.Hence, the international agreements must be ratified in the parliament before the executive signs it on behalf of the Union

  • It is indeed surprising that the word “confidence” does not appear in the constitution. Explains how some popular concepts stem from myths. Can a ministry without the confidence of the house be still responsible? Are these two terms comparable? Can a ministry that loses the confidence of Lok-sabha insist it is still responsible and hence continue? All are interesting questions.

    I wish to correct Mr.Venkatesan on the question of PV Narasimha Rao’s initial period. He did seek a motion of confidence on July 12 1991.See Link . That time Vajpayee and Advani said they were puzzled why he was doing on his own. Still BJP voted against that motion. The “third front” parties abstained.

    I have sympathy for S.D.Sharma’s position in instructing Vajpayee to prove his majority. He was at that time accused of being partial to Vajpayee by inviting him knowing not how Vajpayee would get a majority. But K.R.Narayanan took it to extreme by insisting on letters of support, a common minimum programme on top of it. Not stopping with that he intervened when ADMK withdrew support, by asking Vajpayee to seek a confidence vote, when the parliament was in session. All the opposition had to do was to bring a no-confidence motion in LS. It didn’t require the President’s intervention and he needlessly lent his support to an opposition project.

  • I agree that the confidence vote is an aberration. I am aware of no orthologous tradition in Britain where the sovereign demanded of the PM that he seek such a vote in the House of Commons. Nor is it necessary given that the House is always free to dispose of the government if displeased with it. Even when other claimants exist for the position, the House could simply be convened after the nomination should a significant number of legislators so demand and the fate of the incumbent government left to be decided by it without any directive of any kind to hold the vote.