An interesting exchange during the Wednesday midnight hearing in Supreme Court has set the tone for what could transpire in Karnataka politics over the next few days. Having moved the apex court in a desperate bid to stop BS Yeddyurappa’s swearing in as Karnataka CM, the Congress asked why should he get 15 days from Governor Vajubhai Vala to prove majority in the House. Referring to an earlier apex court observation that “to give such time is to encourage the constitutional sin of poaching”, Congress senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi suggestively argued that there is “only one way” a party which got 104 will get 113 (legislators in support). He was, in effect, obliquely airing Congress fears that the BJP (with 104 MLAs plus support from an Independent) will seek to get past the magic number of 112 MLAs in the 224-member Karnataka assembly by engineering a split in Deve Gowda’s JD(S) which won 38 seats in the just-concluded elections. With the Congress and JD(S) leaderships scrambling to keep their flocks together in secluded resorts, allegations are rife that the BJP is offering Rs 100 crore to every MLA who switches over to don saffron! Be as it may, it was the contention of Attorney General KK Venugopal, the Central government’s top law officer, during the midnight hearing which really caught the attention of the three-judge SC bench. According to Venugopal, the anti-defection law (which prohibits legislators from switching parties) will not apply to Karnataka’s newly-elected legislators if they haven’t been sworn in yet. “You mean before swearing-in, MLAs can switch sides?” — the SC bench asked the Attorney General. Terming his argument “preposterous”, the apex court said it means “open invitation to horse-trading”. While the judges declined to pass an order stopping Yeddyurappa’s oath-taking ceremony, he on Friday next at the apex court will have to produce the two letters he wrote to the Governor purportedly claiming majority support to stake his claim for government formation. Ever since 1998 when the then President KR Narayanan set a precedent by insisting on written letters of support from Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP’s alliance partners for coalition government, such letters are not instruments to be trifled with. All eyes will therefore be on the contents of Yeddyurappa’s letters to the Governor — whether he really claimed a definite number of supporting legislators — when the Congress-JD(S) combine was already claiming the support of 116 legislators.
The next few days will shed light on the courses open before a Governor when a State assembly election throws up a fractured mandate, as it happened in Karnataka this time. As a constitutional authority, the Governor’s discretion has to be respected, but convention and precedence also count. Should the Governor first invite the single largest party to form the government, as in Karnataka presently? Such a course is as per recommendation of both RS Sarkaria Commission and MM Punchi Commission on Centre-State relations. However, constitutional experts point out that a party may well be the single largest in the House, but it is for the Governor to correctly estimate whether it has any chance to pass the floor test. Or should the Governor consider the largest combine, as was done in Meghalaya, Manipur and Goa in the past year? In all these three State elections, the Congress emerged the single largest party, yet BJP-led coalitions got the Governor’s nod. What was the basis of the Governor’s confidence in these three States that the coalitions will be stable and command the confidence of the House? Questions are also being asked as to how much weightage a Governor should give to whether an alliance was formed before or after elections. It remains to be seen whether a section of Karnataka legislators attract the provisions of Tenth Schedule or anti-defection law in the looming test of strength in the House, in case en masse splits or defections are witnessed. The inducement can be like the Congress leadership allowing JD(S) to be ‘big brother’ of the combine and Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy to be chief minister, or the BJP leadership offering JD(S) inclusion both in the State and Central governments. But if sheer money power wins the day, as seems more likely, then it will be another travesty of democracy. It will merely reinforce the public view that money is the glue holding ruling coalitions together, that money is the ballast providing stability to a government. As it is, almost all the newly elected legislators in Karnataka this time are crorepatis, as shown in an analysis by Karnataka Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). As many as 99 percent of Congress MLAs, 98 percent of BJP MLAs, and 95 percent of JD(S) MLAs are crorepatis; nearly half have declared assets above Rs 10 crore while a few are worth over Rs 100 crores; a significant number of them are mining barons and top contractors. Even before it gets going, when governance is reduced to money chasing money, right-thinking citizens need to ponder where the country is heading.