Court drama after governor asks BJP to form state govt

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Bangalore on May 8 ahead of the Karnataka state election. Photo: Reuters/Abhishek N Chinnappa

After a dramatic post-midnight hearing in India’s Supreme Court, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finally managed to get the go-ahead to form a government in the southern state of Karnataka. But the manner in which it has won power is highly controversial, with many likening it to a fixed sporting match.

BS Yeddyurappa took the oath as the chief minister of Karnataka today with 104 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), still eight seats short of the 112 that he needs to have a majority.

The Supreme Court heard the case through the night but refused to stay the swearing-in on Constitutional grounds, which bars courts from interfering with the decisions of the President or the Governor. However, the court did note that the swearing-in was subject to a final order in this case, and the next hearing will be tomorrow (May 18).

That gives the BJP enough time to start shoring up its numbers by poaching defectors from the Congress or the Janta Dal-Secular (JD-S), which formed a post-election alliance and came up with 118 MLAs.

However, the move delivered a severe blow to the BJP’s reputation as a “party with a difference”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rode a popular wave in 2014, famously said: “Na Khaunga, Na Khane Dunga” – ‘I won’t accept [bribes], nor will I allow others [to be bribed’. But, as Karnataka gets into a round of “horse-trading”, it is expected that some MPs elected from the JD-S and Congress will get lucrative offers to jump ship.

How the BJP scored

Insiders already knew that Karnataka Governor Vajubhai R Vala, an old and close associate of Modi, was going to invite the BJP first. Governors are political appointees, and Vala had served under Modi as his finance minister in the state of Gujarat. In fact, in 2001, when Modi was an unknown member, Vala vacated his constituency so Modi could stand for election. Modi never forgot the favor and Vala remained one of his closest political associates.

Top sources in the BJP had already confirmed to Asia Times that the governor would invite the BJP to form a government after the tight poll result. In fact, even before the official communique arrived, the BJP’s state Twitter handle had broken the news about Yeddyurappa being invited to be sworn in. The BJP promptly deleted the tweet, but the Governor’s perceived neutrality was already thin.

Vala followed constitutional tradition of calling upon the single largest party to form government, although the same constitutional norm was discarded, ironically, when the BJP was allowed to return to power in the states of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya when it had far lesser numbers.

In the state of Goa, Governor Mridula Sinha did not invite the Congress, which was the single largest party, to rule; she allowed the BJP to form government. And in Manipur, where the Congress also emerged as the single largest party, the BJP managed to take office with the support of other MLAs in the state.

BJP president Amit Shah is known for sharp political strategies, and the party is confident they will drum up the numbers to achieve a majority. The BJP needs eight MLAs and two Congress MLAs, Anand Singh and Pratapgouda Patil, have already “gone missing”. Singh, it seems, has switched to the BJP, while Patil was whisked away on a private jet.

After the invitation from the Governor, the BJP swung into action. Federal Ministers Prakesh Javadekar, Dharmendra Pradhan and JP Nadda, plus Yeddyurappa and other state leaders were working on options that include MLAs from the Congress and the JD(S) being absent when the trust vote is conducted; that would reduce the mark required for a simple majority.

When Asia Times contacted Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad on the governor’s move, Azad said: “It is an unconstitutional decision taken by the governor. The governor is bound under the constitutional and legal provisions to invite the Congress-JD(S) coalition to form government. The Congress [coalition] has a clear majority.” He said the Congress would keep pushing its legal options.

Murlidhar Rao, in charge of the Karnataka BJP, told Asia Times: “We are the single largest party. How can the Congress and the JD(S) even think about forming the government? They should not insult people’s mandate. The Governor is following the Constitution.”

Asked about claims of “horse trading” (bribing MLAs) to get a majority, Rao said: “There is no question of horse trading at all. We will prove the majority. It will happen in the natural course as MLAs know it favors the state to extend support for a stable and clean government. A lot of MLAs are upset with the ‘unethical marriage of convenience’ between the Congress and the JD(S).”

Drumming up a majority

Curiously, the Attorney General, who appeared on behalf of the federal government during the post-midnight hearing in the Supreme Court, made a shocking submission. He argued that if MLAs switch sides before they take an oath in the state assembly, then the anti-defection law would not apply. The Court immediately observed that this was a “preposterous” suggestion. In other words, this would legalize the bribing of newly-elected MLAs.

For now, the BJP has 15 days to find six or eight more MLAs, unless the Supreme Court blocks its capacity to do that tomorrow. Curiously, the Court sought to see the letters that the BJP submitted to the governor, as Vala invited the BJP to take office on the basis of those letters. But the Court gave the BJP more than 24 hours to produce the letters. A key point, which will be contested, is the fact that while the Congress and the JD-S already has a majority MLAs, the BJP’s letters did not mention any numbers.

Top sources from the BJP said: “We will prove a majority as some Lingayat MLAs from the Congress and some Vokkaliga caste MLAs from the JD(S) are in touch with us.”

All eyes are now on Governor Vala, a known RSS (Rashtriya Seva Sangh, the Hindu organization) and BJP veteran, who had in 2001 vacated his seat of Rajkot (West) for Narendra Modi. The rest, as they say, is history, and Modi went on to become the chief minister of Gujarat and then prime minister.

When BJP leaders sent Modi to Gujarat in 2001, no MLA was interested initially in vacating their seat for Modi. Amit Shah and Modi went to Vala’s house to ask him to vacate the Rajkot seat, and he resigned immediately. As chief minister, Modi gave Vala the most important portfolios – finance, revenue, employment and labor. He holds the record for presenting the state budget in the Gujarat Legislative Assembly: 18 times as Finance Minister. He was also Speaker of the Gujarat Assembly in Modi’s last tenure as chief minister.

Very few people know that after taking oath as prime minister, Modi called Vala to his official residence for dinner. During the dinner, Modi recalled his old days with him and said: “You supported me a lot in Gujarat.” Modi ensured that Vala was appointed as the governor of Karnataka, a key state then held by the Congress party.

For now, the Congress and JD-S leaders are holding their MLAs in resorts to prevent any poaching by the BJP. But the harm to India’s constitutional and ethical political framework has already been done.

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