Karnataka crisis recalls landmark Bommai judgment from 25 years ago

New Delhi, July 19 (IANS)
Recent events in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly hark back to its past over a quarter of a century ago as the state is again locked in a political crisis over legal and Constitutional interpretation.
The ruling coalition, the Speaker and the heads of political parties have reached the corridors of the Supreme Court urging it not to intervene in the business of the Assembly.
Though the Supreme Court has already passed an order saying the 15 rebel MLAs cannot be compelled to participate in the Assembly proceedings, the ruling coalition claims it is beyond the jurisdiction of the court, as its implementation whittles down its rights to issue whips as a political party under the Constitution.
Bommai Case
Then Karnataka Chief Minister S.R. Bommai faced a similar scenario in 1989. His government was dismissed and he then moved the Supreme Court leading to a landmark judgement, often referred as the Bommai judgment in 1994. He headed the Janata Dal – formed after the merger of the Janata Party and the Lok Dal in 1988. The coalition held a majority in the Karnataka Assembly.
In April 1988, only two days after a Cabinet expansion, one MLA K.R. Molakery, defected and submitted a letter, which had signatures of 18 MLAs claiming to have withdrawn support to the government, to Governor P. Venkatasubbaiah.
The Governor told the Centre that the Bommai government had lost its majority and could not constitutionally continue as a minority. Later, some MLAs returned to the fold.
Bommai met the Governor and expressed his ability to prove his majority on the floor of the House. Instead, the Governor suggested imposition of President’s Rule in the state, which was subsequently imposed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government.
Bommai moved the Supreme Court, challenging the High Court order dismissing his petition. In a 5-4 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor stating that dismissal of his government was unconstitutional.
The apex court ruled that the majority of a government is subjected to the test-of-strength on the floor of the House, and the Governor has no role in such a political scenario.
The judgment accorded power to the Governor to direct a government to prove its majority in the Assembly in a stipulated time-frame. However, the judgment did not touch the power of the Speaker who continues to wield influence in running the Assembly.
Bommai case in current political scenario in Karnataka
The Governor had already set a deadline for the Chief Minister to conduct a confidence motion and the trust vote before 1:30 p.m. on July 19. The Congress and the JD(s) claim that the Governor is overreaching his powers by spelling-out directions to the Speaker, and also interfering in the business of the Legislative Assembly.
According to legal experts, the Bommai judgment is only applicable in the imposition of President’s Rule in the state in the absence of a clear majority in the Assembly.
“The Supreme Court order on July 17 did not stop any political party from issuing a whip, which is their Constitutional right. The court ruled that the 15 MLAs cannot be compelled to participate in the House proceedings. The Congress and JD(S) are free to issue whips, and if their MLAs don’t abide, then they can be disqualified. But it cannot stop the confidence motion and trust vote on the floor of the House,” said a prominent legal expert.
Another expert opined that citing the Bommai case is not relevant in the current situation, as the floor test is yet to take place. “After the floor test, if the ruling government is found in minority, then the Bommai judgment is applicable and the Governor can approach the Centre accordingly,” he said.
The apex court in its July 17 order, urged the Speaker to decide on the resignations of the MLAs. Therefore, the court has not infringed on the power of the Speaker, who continues to control the business in running the house. The Speaker’s decision cannot be arbitrary or biased, if it is indicative of bias, then the court has the power to subject it to judicial review.
The coalition party leaders in Karnataka today moved the top court that its order has extended protection to the rebel MLAs from the whip. The matter is yet to come up for regular hearing. The Congress has cited the Bommai case judgment, which restrains courts from passing an interim order, especially, if the matter is pending before the Speaker in the Karnataka Assembly.
Eventually, the Bommai judgment will test the top court after the Speaker takes a final decision on the resignation or disqualification of the rebel MLAs.

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