The Supreme Court today cleared the decks for 17 defecting MLAs from Karnataka to contest the bypolls in December. The court’s decision came on a plea filed by 15 of the 17 MLAs who had challenged the then Karnataka Assembly Speaker KR Ramesh’s decision to reject their resignations and disqualify them under the anti-defection law instead.
A bench of Justices NV Ramana, Sanjiv Khanna and Krishna Murari upheld the Speaker’s decision to disqualify the rebel MLAs for defection. However, the court struck down the speaker’s decision to bar them from contesting elections till the 15th legislative Assembly completes its term in 2023.
“In light of the existing constitutional mandate, the speaker is not empowered to disqualify any member till the end of the term,” the bench ruled. “However, a member disqualified under the Tenth Schedule shall be subjected to sanctions provided under Articles 75(1B), 164(1B) and 361B of Constitution, which provides for a bar from being appointed as a minister or from holding any remunerative political post from the date of disqualification till the date on which the term of his office would expire or if he is reelected to the legislature, whichever is earlier.”
Noting the growing trend of the “speaker acting against the constitutional duty of being neutral”, the court observed, “Further horse-trading and corrupt practices associated with defection and change of loyalty for lure of office or wrong reasons have not abated. Thereby the citizens are denied stable governments.In these circumstances, there is need to consider strengthening certain aspects, so that such undemocratic practices are discouraged and checked.”
In July last year, 17 MLAs from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) resigned en masse, toppling the Congress-led coalition government. Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) was forced to resign and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s BS Yeddyurappa was sworn in.
Byelections for 15 of the 17 seats are scheduled for December 5. Candidates must file their nomination papers by November 18. The BJP needs to win at least seven of these seats to maintain its majority and prevent the government from collapsing. All major political parties in the state — the BJP, Congress and JD(S) — had held back the announcement of their candidates in anticipation of the court’s decision.
Justice Raman pronounced the judgement, which he authored. “Speaker, in exercise of his powers under the Tenth Schedule, does not have the power to either indicate the period for which a person is disqualified nor to bar someone from contesting elections,” he said on Ramesh’s decision to bar the MLAs from contesting polls until 2023.
The judgement read: “We must be careful to remember that the desirability of a particular rule or law, should not, in any event, be confused with the question of the existence of the same, and constitutional morality should never be replaced by political morality in deciding what the Constitution mandates.”
The 109-page judgement clarifies that the speaker must accept resignations tendered by legislators if they are genuine. “The speaker’s scope of inquiry with respect to acceptance or rejection of a resignation tendered by a member of the legislature is limited to examine whether such a resignation was tendered voluntarily or genuinely,” it states. “Once it is demonstrated that a member is willing to resign out of his free will, the speaker has no option but to accept the resignation. It is constitutionally impermissible for the speaker to take into account any extraneous factors while considering the resignation.”
The court added, “Our findings on allegations of not granting specific time in all the above cases are based on the unique facts and circumstances of the case. It should not be understood to mean that the Speaker could cut short the hearing period. The speaker should give sufficient opportunity to a member before deciding a disqualification proceeding and ordinarily follow the time limit prescribed in the Rules of the Legislature.”
Lack of drama
At least three of the 15 MLAs were present in the court today. However, the lack of drama was in stark contrast to what had followed the MLAs’ resignations last year.
At the time, in a last-ditch attempt to save its government, the Congress had challenged Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in in the top court, resulting in a 12-hour drama and a post-midnight hearing.
Justices AK Sikri (who has since retired), SA Bobde (who takes over as the Chief Justice of India this month) and Ashok Bhushan were woken up in the middle of the night and held court for three hours. Starting at 1.15 am, they heard a plea filed by the Congress seeking a stay on Karnataka governor Vajubhai Bala’s decision to invite Yeddyurappa to form the government. The court eventually rejected the plea.