New Delhi: Pratibha Devisingh Patil has spent much of the past week looking at what others before her have done when faced with the challenge that she will face now.
Patil, 74, India’s first woman President, has to decide whom she is going to invite to form the country’s next government, and with the mandate of elections to the 15th Lok Sabha likely to be fractured, that won’t be an easy decision.
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This will the first big test for the dimunitive Patil, India’s 12th President, who moved into Rashtrapati Bhawan in July 2007.
‘Political’ President: Pratibha Patil is set to face her first big test. Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
“Each election throws up a different situation. As situation unravels, the President will consult legal experts and she will be guided by accepted conventions and constitutional provisions,” said Archana Dutta, officer on special duty (public relations) at Rashtrapati Bhawan.
The decision as to whom to invite to form the government grants the President of India more power than one would associate with a post that is largely titular.
Article 75 of the Constitution of India vests the President with powers to appoint the prime minister, who enjoys the majority support of the Lok Sabha. It also says the actions of the President cannot be challenged in any court of the law.
Her spokesperson’s willingness about Patil’s readiness to tackle anything the results of this election may throw at her shouldn’t surprise anyone. During the campaign in the presidential election of 2007, Patil had maintained that she would be a “political president” and not a “rubber stamp”.
And the former state minister in Maharashtra and governor of Rajasthan is not unfamiliar with sticky situations.
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Patil, a Congress veteran, was elected President after a contest that was as tough as it was dirty. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had fielded former vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat against her, repeatedly questioned her capability. It also alleged that she protected her brother in a murder investigation and had been involved in numerous financial wrongdoings. The Congress had dismissed all the allegations.
Patil’s first visit to another country as President, a 12-day tour to Latin American countries in April last year, was also marred by controversies. In Brazil, her speech was heard by a nearly empty senate. And in Mexico, the President had to call off her joint address to parliament after some legislators blocked proceedings over an energy Bill. During the visit, Patil’s son, Rajendra Singh Shekhawat, breached protocol to make a personal trip to the US, Indo Asian News Service had said on 30 April 2008. However, this breach of protocol was denied both by the external affairs ministry and Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Contrary to how she is seen in some quarters, however, analysts say that Patil is actually a tough President.
When she was governor of Rajasthan, she demonstrated her independence by refusing to sign a controversial religious freedom Bill, which would have prohibited religious conversions. She argued that it contained provisions that directly or indirectly affected the fundamental right related to religious freedom.
More recently, she rejected the Union home ministry’s move to send the Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Bill, 2003, back to the state assembly, and advised them to seek clearance from the Union cabinet before doing so. The Bill is essentially an anti-terror one through which the Gujarat government had asked for certain powers to deal with insurgents and terrorists.
The soft-spoken Patil, a vegetarian who loves Maharashtrian food, loves to travel. A lawyer by profession, she was first elected to the Maharashtra assembly in 1962. She was elected to the Rajya Sabha, Parliament’s Upper House, in 1985 after nearly a quarter century in state politics. And in 1991, she was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Amravati constituency in Maharashtra.
Patil, a Rajput, is married to Devisingh Ransingh Shekhawat, a Maratha of Rajasthani origin.
Although she has kept a low profile, Patil has often spoken passionately on issues related to women, especially against sexual harassment, and the rights of the girl child. During her visit to Chile, she was quick to build a warm rapport with President Michelle Bachelet, the first elected woman president in Latin America, who referred to Patil as a “dear friend”.
Now, all eyes are on Patil, as she sets out to decide who will form the next government. There are several precedents from which she can choose.
While R. Venkataraman chose to invite the single largest party twice—in 1989 (V.P. Singh) and in 1991 (P.V. Narasimha Rao), his successor Shankar Dayal Sharma’s move to do the same in 1996 didn’t work and the A.B. Vajpayee-led BJP government lasted a mere 13 days.
In 1998, President K.R. Narayanan, known for going by the rule book, ascertained that the BJP, the single largest party, had enough numbers to secure the confidence of the House. And A.P.J. Abdul Kalam also insisted on letters of support before he allowed the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance to form a government in 2004.
Constitutional law expert K. K. Venugopal said in an email that in the event of a hung Parliament, the President would have to invite the leader of the single largest party or the pre-poll alliance of parties that has the largest number of members, to form the government. “The criterion that has to be applied is that the leader so invited will be able to provide a ‘stable’ government.”
Patil has thus far had an uneventful term as President. Her response to what promises to be the defining moment of her presidency will determine the country’s future for the next five years.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
Soumya Shanker also contributed to this story.