Decoding the Supreme Court verdict on Karnataka MLAs

The Supreme Court, in a nutshell, has done a bit of a balancing act with its verdict on Karnataka. While it has upheld the then Speaker Ramesh Kumar’s decision to disqualify the 17 MLAs who belonged to the Congress and the JDS and had rebelled against their respective parties, significantly it has ruled against his decision to disqualify them till 2023, that is the end of the current term of the Karnataka assembly.

What does this mean for Karnataka?

1. The Supreme court basically says that the MLAs had defied the anti-defection law and hence the decision to disqualify them was valid under law. However, the law does not empower the Speaker to prevent them from contesting elections in the current term of the Assembly. 

2. This means 15 of those 17 MLAs can contest the 5th December bypolls. Elections to two constituencies –  Maski and RR Nagar – have been withheld because of cases in the Karnataka High court.

3. This means the Congress and JDS disqualified MLAs can now hope to contest on the BJP ticket and if they get elected, they can hope to become minsters. The Yediyurappa cabinet still has about a dozen vacancies.

4. The question is whether the BJP that has its own original contenders in all those 15 seats, will accommodate all the 15 newcomers. 

5. If BJP which has 106 MLAs now, wins six of the 15 seats, it will cross the half mark (112 in a 222 member house, leaving out Maski and RR Nagar) and be in a majority. 

6. For the Congress and JDS that went to town about how unethical these defections were, a decent performance alone will show that these were party seats and not fiefdoms of the MLAs. If they lose a majority of the seats, it will have no figleaf but to concede that there was disenchantment against the HD Kumaraswamy regime.

What are the larger implications of this verdict for Indian democracy?

1. The apex court has held the Speaker’s powers within the House. To disqualify or not, is the Speaker’s prerogative. This can be used by the ruling party to its advantage like it happened in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

2. The apex court was expected to use the Karnataka opportunity to send a strong message on the lack of morality and ethics in today’s politics where MLAs and MPs jumped parties within days of getting elected. If the Speaker was willing, it meant the MLA could continue without even being disqualified like it happened in Telangana betweeen 2014 and 18 where 12 of the 15 TDP MLAs crossed over to the ruling TRS and the Speaker looked the other way. Likewise in Andhra Pradesh where 23 YSRCP MLAs joined the TDP and four of them even became ministers. 

In the case of Karnataka, since the Speaker wanted to crack the whip, he ensured the MLAs were penalised for disrespecting the mandate of the people. But what the verdict does now is to pave the way for `legalised’ poaching instead of stopping defection of MLAs because of attractive offers from another more loaded political party. 

3. The only setback for a lawmaker is that he or she has to contest a bypoll. If the new party is willing to bankroll that expenditure, what’s the big deal. The disqualifcation ends up having no meaning. There is not sufficient deterrence to jump ship. 

4. During the trust vote, the court said the whip does not matter. Then what is the role of the party whip if the MLAs are told not to obey it. 

5. This will only end up creating instability especially in smaller states. 

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