Fourteen months and seven attempts since May 2018, the BJP on Tuesday finally managed to oust the ruling Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition in Karnataka in a protracted act of political aggression that leaves in its wake a trail of detritus of parliamentary norms and the democratic process.
The political coup of sorts, where at least 15 ruling coalition members were housed in a Mumbai hotel inaccessible to their party leaders, may have ensured the BJP’s taking over of power, but in the process India’s democratic process is now adrift in a sea of uncertainty.
For one, in a close election, no longer can a political party be sure it can function for a full term of five years — as in the case of Karnataka, where, in the May 2018 elections, the BJP secured 104 seats, the Congress 80 and the JD(S) 38, besides two others. In an Assembly of 224 seats, the BJP fell short by nine seats while the JD(S)-Congress coalition had 118.
While the frustration of the BJP was understandable, what was not was its continuous effort to topple the coalition since it took over power in May last year. The party, under former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa, was unrelenting in its attempts to break the coalition.
The moot point is there were no grave issues on which the coalition needed to be ousted. The BJP’s only goal was to be in power. In the process, it created a new normal — that of poaching coalition legislators. Unlike in earlier times, when poaching was frowned upon, in the last one year, the BJP acquired the dubious honour of incessantly wooing ruling legislators with promises of lucre and position in a new dispensation. There were reports that select legislators had even been threatened with punitive action from enforcement agencies if they did not change sides.
To stand a chance at ousting the coalition, it was important for the BJP to ensure that the 15 rebel coalition legislators were kept away from the state assembly. Housed, or rather interned in a hotel in BJP-ruled Maharashtra, the rebels who were joined by three more over the last three weeks, received full protection from the state machinery.
The irony is at the end of the vote and the success of the BJP — the incoming government too may not be stable. Of the 20 legislators who were absent during voting — other than two who did not belong either to the Congress or the JD(S) — the rest will face disqualification under the anti-defection act. Fifteen of them have already submitted their resignations.
Whether they are disqualified or their resignations accepted, that would mean the strength of the house comes down to 206. Bye-elections will have to be held to fill their seats. Until then, there will be uncertainty as the BJP is ahead of the coalition by just five seats (including Speaker K R Ramesh Kumar who is with the Congress).
Outgoing chief minister H D Kumaraswamy mentioned this during his concluding address in the Assembly and wondered whether the BJP will try to poach more coalition members in the coming days to secure its position.
Alternatively, when bye-elections are held, there is no guarantee that all the 18 seats will go to the BJP. Despite the party being on a strong wicket in Delhi, the same may not necessarily repeat in a state election.
What causes a certain degree of trepidation is the unadulterated eagerness of the BJP to be in power. As the Assembly Speaker repeatedly pointed out, what was the need for the 15 rebel legislators to approach the Supreme Court and ask it to direct him to meet them. The Speaker, when the rebel MLAs approached his office on a Saturday (July 6) with their letters of resignation which triggered the eventual collapse of the coalition, was unaware of their visit. He had left the office on personal work and sent word he would meet them the coming Monday.
Instead of waiting, they rushed to the apex court. While it is the right of any citizen to approach the top court, in this context, dragging the judiciary in a matter related to the legislature has lent itself to disturbing the delicate balance between two constitutional bodies.
Not just that, during the first day of discussion during the vote of confidence on July 18, when voting was not done, the move by the Karnataka BJP legislature party to ask for the Governor’s intervention too caused much angst among members of the ruling coalition.
Governor Vajubhai Vala responded to the BJP members’ plea for intervention and directed the Speaker to complete the trust vote within a certain time. This again, was unprecedented, and could be interpreted as another sign of diluting the independence of the legislature.
As if these were not enough, the Supreme Court ruled that the rebel legislators were free to attend or abstain themselves from the assembly proceedings. This ruling caused a flutter, with former chief minister Siddaramaiah raising a point of order asking whether this meant the end of the powers of a political party to issue a whip to its legislators to be present in the Assembly on important occasions.
Though Speaker Ramesh Kumar interpreted the court order as not diluting the powers of any political party to issue a whip but only a missive to him to protect the rebel MLAs if they decided to attend the house, the order opens up a new vista for future judgements. In effect, it could be a stab on the 10th Schedule where defying a whip can lead to disqualification as a member of the legislature.
The overall impact of the last 14 months — with the BJP repeatedly trying to lure coalition legislators and eventually succeeding in it — is probably the beginning of the end of the anti-defection law. Brought in by the Congress’s Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985 to stem defections galore across political parties, this corrective piece of legislation has been pummelled and punctured in so many different ways over time that it is in danger of becoming a veritable dead letter.