Karnataka Assembly floor test: Speaker's role crucial, but battle only prelude to summer's political potboiler

Let the games in Karnataka begin.

File image of KG Bopaiah. News18

File image of KG Bopaiah. News18

The Supreme Court has ordered that the Karnataka Assembly vote on a confidence motion on the BJP government on Saturday. This came after a series of hearings with a midnight hearing that didn't stay the swearing-in of Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa and a hearing on Friday where this order was passed.

The law requires that till a speaker of the House is elected, the governor is required to appoint a speaker pro tem. This requirement stems from the fact that the speaker of the House is required to swear in the members of the House. The speaker pro tem is in charge of presiding over the election of the speaker of the House. By convention, this is to be the most senior legislator. But the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) are challenging the appointment of KG Bopaiah as speaker pro tem as he is not the most senior member. Looks like they will move the court on this point as well.

The role of the speaker becomes critical during a confidence vote given India's anti-defection law. As discussed in this Firstpost piece, India's anti-defection law punishes legislators who vote against a direction issued by their party. It punishes them by disqualifying such legislators. This can be an issue here as if the BJP has to survive the floor test, it needs to take some MLAs from either the Congress or the JD(S).

So the magic number is 111. The BJP currently has 104. That's seven short. If we assume the Anglo-Indian member vote for them, that brings it to 105. The speaker, by convention, votes only in the case of a tied vote and by convention the speaker votes in favour of the government. But this may not be at play here, given that the speaker is a member of the House and would anyway count in the BJP's 104 tally.

By appointing KG Bopaiah as pro tem speaker, the BJP number is now effectively 103. The speaker's vote only comes into play when there is a tie. It is doubtful if there is enough numbers for a tie.

One useful thing here is that the Governor Vajubhai Vala has been restrained from appointing an Anglo-Indian member to the Assembly. Under Article 333 of the Constitution, if the governor is of the opinion that the Anglo-Indian community is not adequately represented in the Assembly, one may be nominated. The order restraining the governor from doing so will create an impression of fairness.

Further, the statement made by Yeddyurappa's counsel that no major policy decision will be taken till the floor test is one that should be welcomed by all parties given that it provides an overall impression of fairness. But the SC order is silent on what would happen to the policy decisions taken thus far.

The SC order is short and interim in nature. The decision of whether the governor should have called the BJP or Congress-JD(S) combine is still an open question. But thankfully, it throws an important issue of law into court. What exactly is the law in situations such as this? How much discretion does the governor exercise? As per the order, there will be a detailed hearing ten weeks from now. It is hopeful that the Supreme Court, while disposing of this case, will settle the law so that there are no such future issues.

But tomorrow at 4:00 pm in Karnataka, there will be a floor test. The MLAs would have taken their oaths and the Assembly would be convened. The SC order is clear that all the elected members shall take oath tomorrow at 4:00 pm. This would close another door for the BJP where instead of having members defect it could convince members of the Congress-JD(S) to just not show up. Quorum for a vote doesn't require all members to be present.

One-tenth of the members of the Assembly are required to constitute a quorum under Article 189 of the Constitution. If there is no quorum, the speaker is to adjourn the House. Post the oath taking ceremony, it will be difficult for members to justify not being present during the vote. If enough Congress-JD(S) members just don't turn up, there will be no issue for the BJP to maintain the confidence of the House.

Under Clause 2(b) of the Tenth Schedule, a member abstaining from voting when there is a whip issued to vote will also have been deemed to have defected and would be disqualified.

It will be interesting to see how events play out tomorrow. Further, it's not over yet as far as litigation goes. Whatever the vote tomorrow, both sides are going to challenge it. The Supreme Court goes into its annual summer break today and will only be back on 2 July.

There are vacation benches, but given the situation playing in Karnataka it is doubtful if the Congress, JD(S) or the BJP will give the vacation benches any respite. If the BJP loses tomorrow, it will also have to be seen if Karnataka is going to witness snap elections instead of a Congress-JD(S) government. There is so much political drama happening over this election, it puts regular TV soaps to shame.


Updated Date: May 18, 2018 21:17 PM

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