Court orders floor test to break Karnataka election deadlock

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The MLAs of Congress and JD(S) wait to meet with the governor to submit the letter for post-poll coalition. Photo: ANI

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the Bharatiya Janata Party to conduct a floor test on Saturday to prove it has a majority in the Karnataka assembly, in the latest twist to a dramatic row over the formation of the southern state’s new government.

The apex court was hearing a petition filed by the opposition  Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance against the decision of Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala to invite the BJP to form the next government. The petition also included the nomination for an Anglo-Indian member to the assembly by the BJP.

Its intervention brought a temporary halt to the rancorous dispute, which began after the BJP emerged as the single-biggest party in the May 12 election with 112 seats. Vala, a veteran member of BJP and Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), as well as a close confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, invited BJP to form  the government even though it was eight short of a majority.

The Congress and JD(S) then engineered a quick post-poll alliance that had 117 seats and claimed they had the right to form a government. On Friday BJP’s lawyer Mukul Rohatgi, who is the former Attorney General of India, admitted in court that the party did not yet have the names of its 112 elected members, though it promised to “manage” this within the 15 days allowed by the Governor.

However, the Supreme Court asked Rohatgi sharply how the BJP could manage with 112 assembly members when the Congress-JD(S) combine had already submitted names for its 117 elected members.

Congress-JD(S) lawyers Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Kapil Sibal demanded an immediate floor test, a tactic designed to deny the BJP any time to try and poach their alliance’s members. Rohatgi objected on the grounds that his party needed time to drum up its numbers.

This merely evoked the curiosity of the Supreme Court judges, who wondered how the BJP could claim a majority when it still needed time to count the numbers. In a bizarre submission, Rohatgi charged that the Congress-JD(S) assembly members were “locked up”, and hence would need time before they could be brought to Karnataka.

Naturally, Singhvi and Sibal immediately supported the idea of a quick floor test. That will now take place at 4 pm on Saturday, with the Congress capitalizing on its decision to petition the Supreme Court after midnight to stop the appointment of a BJP government.

The Congress was quick to point out the role of Modi government-appointed governors in the states of Goa, Manipur and Meghalya, where the BJP was in a minority position after elections but was still invited to form a government.

After the early morning court hearing, the BJP, now led by B S Yeddyurappa, was sworn into office on Thursday, and immediately started making major policy decisions. This included withdrawing police security from a resort hosting the Congress-JD(S) assembly members.

Rumors then began to circulate that a chartered flight booked to fly out the assembly members and prevent any further poaching had been “canceled” by the Director General of Civil Aviation, an autonomous body under the central government’s civil aviation ministry. While the minister in charge denied these rumors on Twitter, the fact remains that members were unable to fly.

Instead, they were herded into a bus and packed off to the neighboring state of Telengana, to be housed there until the floor test had been held. Meanwhile, on Friday morning the next round of arguments started, with lawyers sparring on both sides.

One surprising aspect is the role of the Attorney General of India. As a government-appointed official, he is supposed to be neutral in political issues; but during the Supreme Court hearing he offered to hold a “secret ballot” after it became apparent that the court was in no mood to give more time to the BJP to prove it had a majority.

A secret ballot would have ensured that any rebel Congress or JD(S) leaders would be in a position to secretly vote for the BJP during the floor test. It was immediately rejected by the court, which ordered that the floor test be conducted in an open manner. The court also directed the interim BJP government in Karnataka not to take any major policy decisions until the test had been completed.

The court barred the nomination of an Anglo-Indian legislative minister, Vinisha Nero, until the BJP proved it held a majority. This nomination is an old practice that allows the tiny Anglo-Indian community representation in legislative assemblies across the country. But had it been accepted, the odds would have been skewed in favor of the BJP.

Congress-JD(S) quickly welcomed the order for a floor test, with senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi describing it as “a historic verdict”. He added: “Many important directions have been given, one of them being that the floor test has to be conducted at 4pm tomorrow under a protem [temporary] speaker.”

BS Yeddyurappa put up a brave face, saying he was confident of proving the party had a majority. “As per the directions of Supreme Court, we are expected to prove our majority tomorrow. We are sending our file to (the) Karnataka governor to call an assembly session at 11am tomorrow. We are going to prove a majority,” he said.

The court will decide later whether the party with the largest number of elected members or a coalition able to command a majority of members will form the government. However, the Supreme Court’s order has now raised questions about the Governor’s initial decision to allow the BJP 15 days to prove it had a majority.

Meanwhile, one unintended consequence of the Governor’s declaration of the BJP in Karnataka as the “single-largest party” is that has galvanised opposition factions in other states. In Goa, 13 Congress assembly members handed a memorandum to Governor Mridula Sinha saying they were the single largest party in the state.

Yatish Naik, the Goa Congress spokesperson, said: “We are going to tell her that since her counterpart in Karnataka has called the single largest party, she should also call us now. We are the single largest party, [and] will prove a majority on the floor of the House.”

Congress and their allies are making a similar bid to grab power in the states of Bihar and Meghalay, saying they are the “single-largest party” in their respective states.

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