Now the crisis seems to be approaching a denouement. The Election Commission is processing allegations against over forty MPs of having violated the Office of Profit law. Those found guilty will be unseated. Fifty-six MPs have already been identified. Their number keeps rising. The President raised legal questions regarding the Office of Profit bill. He returned it to Parliament for reconsideration. With indecent haste Congress and Left parties are passing the bill without alteration for the President to sign. The Rajya Sabha has already cleared it. By the time this appears in print the Lok Sabha most likely would also have passed it.
Under the Constitution the President cannot return the bill for a second time. But he can, under Article 143 of the Constitution, refer it to the Supreme Court for advice regarding the bill's legality.
The President had earlier signed an Ordinance to dissolve the Bihar assembly. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. If he were to repeat the blunder of signing a bill found subsequently unconstitutional, the damage to his reputation could be fatal.
The bill in its present form would very likely be struck down by the Supreme Court if an appeal were made. The President would, therefore, be failing in his responsibility if he did not confirm the legal soundness of the bill before affixing his signature.
It has become in consequence a race to determine what moves faster, the disposal of the cases before the EC or the enactment of the new law that would save the MPs. The desperation of the situation is evident from the outpouring of legal comment, to the effect that the President has no power to act in the matter without permission of the cabinet. One legal expert in a newspaper article quoted statements by some of the Constitution's makers affirming that our system was akin to the Westminster model and that the President was circumscribed like the British sovereign. Unfortunately for him, and others like him, our Constitution is written and is explicit. If the assumptions of some founding fathers were not incorporated in the written Constitution they lose relevance.
Nowhere is it written in our Constitution that India is guided by the British system, or that our elected President is akin to the British sovereign.
It has also been argued that the President can invoke Article 143 only by sending the bill for the Supreme Court's advice through the cabinet. This too is questionable. But even if it were so, would it imply that the cabinet could refuse to oblige the President, and forward his request to the Supreme Court? If this option is under serious consideration the panic of the government is nothing short of pathetic.
Earlier, discussing political motives in this crisis, this column had stated: 'The President and EC may sort out the crisis. If they don't, topple the government! The final outcome may stun them.' Will this happen?
One issue which could be seized to overthrow the government might be the Indo-US nuclear deal. The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly supported the deal. Indian concerns were protected in the US resolution. Apart from addressing India's nuclear concerns, reference to India restraining Iran has been excluded from the US resolution. But the deal is running into trouble in India's own parliament. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh categorically reaffirmed that no prior commitment made by the government to parliament would be breached. Nevertheless the Left parties insisted that a resolution defining the parameters of the agreement be passed by parliament before the deal may be signed. In this the Left was vigorously supported by former foreign minister Mr. Natwar Singh. The BJP also supported this view. But after the BJP support the Left became ambivalent. Its position at the moment of writing is unclear. But the most curious and possibly significant role is being played by senior Congress leaders themselves.
A responsible national daily reported the proceedings of a meeting between the UPA government and leaders of the Left parties held last week. The government team was led by Mr. Pranab Mukherjee who was accompanied by Mr. Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, Mr. Suresh Pachauri and Mr. V Narayanswamy. These team members are eminently compatible with the Left's views in most policy matters. But the meeting took a strange turn. Despite assurances given by the PM on the nuclear deal, the Left leaders were reportedly adamant about introducing a resolution in parliament to convey the sense of the house on the nuclear deal. If their insistence was strange, the reaction of the government leaders was stranger.
Mr. Mukherjee reportedly gave an odd reaction in case the Left parties moved the resolution. He said: 'Then I am not in the government, and the government would not be there.' Was this confrontation or collusion with his dear Marxist friends who had helped him get elected to Lok Sabha? Notwithstanding Mr. Mukherjee's warning, Mr. Prakash Karat later told the media that the PM's statement was not good enough.
The resolution was required to provide the framework in which the nuclear deal could proceed. But Mr. Jyoti Basu ruled out any resolution and withdrawal of support to the government on account of the nuclear deal. Government sources, most strangely of all, advised media persons that the resolution if moved would be tantamount to a no-confidence move. That is not the case. So is the government laying the foundation for being toppled if events dictate a mid-term poll? Mr. Mukherjee along with eighteen Left MPs is threatened by the Office of Profit crisis. Is that pure coincidence?
Expectedly the bill will be cleared and forwarded to President Kalam for signing by the time this appears in print. If he delays signing it, MPs could pre-empt the Election Commission from unseating them. They could force a mid-term poll. If not the nuclear deal, they could seize some other issue. But toppling the government may not necessarily serve their purpose. A fluid situation can spring unpleasant surprises.