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Karnataka crisis set to put a 25-year-old Supreme Court judgment to test

Bangalore

The political crisis in Karnataka is heading for another prolonged legal-constitutional battle in which the Speaker, the Governor, the Karnataka assembly, the ruling party and the Supreme Court are involved. Some of these stakeholders have taken contradictory positions on issues that have resulted in an existential crisis for the HD Kumaraswamy government in Karnataka.

But this not the first time something like this has happened in Karnataka politics.

SR Bommai was the Karnataka chief minister in 1989. The Janata Dal – formed after the merger of the Janata Party and the Lok Dal in 1988 — was in majority in Karnataka.

In April 1989, Bommai expanded his cabinet. Only two days after the cabinet expansion, one MLA — KR Molakery — defected and submitted a letter to Governor P Venkatasubbaiah. His letter contained signatures of 18 more MLAs saying that they had withdrawn their support to the Bommai government.

The governor sent a report to the Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre, informing it of the latest developments. The governor stated that the Bommai government had lost its majority and its continuance was inappropriate under the Constitution.

The Janata Dal leadership reached out to those who had signed the letter. Seven of the MLAs came back to the fold and blamed Molakery for misrepresenting their consent about withdrawal of support. Bommai, now, met the governor and said he was willing to prove his majority in the assembly.

But Governor Venkatasubbaiah sent another letter to the Centre recommending the dismissal of the Bommai government. The Rajiv Gandhi government, accordingly, imposed President’s Rule in Karnataka removing the Bommai government.

Bommai challenged his dismissal in the Karnataka High Court, which dismissed his writ petition. Bommai, then, moved to the Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict five years later, by which time, the tenure of the next assembly was nearing its end.

The nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered seven judgments. Five of the judges concurred on maximum number of points making it a 5-4 majority judgment which held that dismissal of the Bommai government was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled that majority of a government can only be tested on the floor of the House. It cannot be decided by the governor applying his private wisdom. This judgment has stood test of time.

In 1999, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had to reinstate the Rabri Devi government after having dismissed it and imposed President’s Rule in Bihar. This was a major embarrassment for the central government and has been a deterrent for the successive ruling parties at the Centre in dealing with a state government.

The Bommai judgment also gave the governor the power to direct a government to prove its majority in a given time frame in the assembly. However, the Speaker enjoys overwhelming powers in running the business of the assembly.

In the present case, the governor issued directive to the chief minister setting a deadline, which the Congress says is infringement on the power of the Speaker and interference with the business of the assembly. The Speaker has the power to run the house in a manner to his satisfaction.

The Bommai judgment further stated that the court cannot decide or give direction on matters of resignation or disqualification of MLAs or MPs until the Speaker has decided the matter. The courts only have the power of judicial review of the decision taken by the Speaker.

Disqualification involves issuance of whip by the political party. In the present case, the Supreme Court extended protection to the rebel MLAs from the whip in its interim order. Some of the Congress leaders have cited the Bommai case saying the judgment restrains courts from delivering an interim order if the matter is still pending in the Karnataka Assembly.

Once the dust settles in Karnataka, with or without survival of the Kumaraswamy government, the political crisis is set to put the SR Bommai case judgment to test in the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the matter once the Speaker takes a final decision on resignations or disqualification of the rebel MLAs.

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