The fall of the JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka was expected. It was, as the results for the Lok Sabha elections came on May 23, 2019. The BJP, having swept the Lok Sabha polls, could have resorted to what the Janata Party did to the several Congress-run state governments in March/April 1977: Charan Singh, the Home Minister then, served an ultimatum to those to quit as the Lok Sabha polls had established the Congress party’s loss of the people’s mandate.
The state governments were soon dismissed and they all approached the Supreme Court. The apex court, however, decided against interfering into the action, technically in the name of the President (State of Rajastan and Others v/s Union of India, AIR 1977 SC 1361), and the matter rested there. But then, a lot of water has flown down the Cauvery between then and now and the BJP’s intention could not have been dismissal of the state government and going for fresh elections as did the Janata in 1977.
Well. The Supreme Court had revised the law and turned the position by 180 degrees in the SR Bommai case and thus a summary dismissal on moral or ethical principles (as put forward by Charan Singh and his Janata Party then) was not a feasible idea. And HD Kumarasamy would not bind himself with moral or ethical ropes and recommend fresh elections; this he could have done while enjoying majority support in the assembly that he did in the many weeks after May 23, 2019 and until a couple of weeks ago.
When some of the MLAs from his party and also from the Congress took flight to Mumbai and checked into a resort there, after submitting their resignation letters to the Lok Sabha speaker, there was very little sign of the state government surviving. And yet the motion, a debate and a formal division of votes on the floor of the Assembly was gone through. This ensured that the law, as laid down in the SR Bommai case, was not broken. Democracy, if it were only a technical term in legal/constitutional terms was ensured in Bengaluru today.
The point, however, is that democracy is not merely a legal/constitutional term but a concept and a discourse on it shall not exclude the ethical and the moral sides to it. That, however, is a matter that cannot be discussed in isolation and as must be the case with any discourse in history, the context or the conditions under which it happens ought to be counted as central to the discourse. Piero Sraffa, one of the eminents who taught for long years at the University of Cambridge and was sought after during his life (that ended in 1983) and after his death, would stress that all theories ought to be held relevant or otherwise in specific conditions.
So, I will resist, now, from the temptation to pontificate on the moral or immoral aspects of the developments in Karnataka as much as about the resort to moving into resorts by MLAs of the various hues. It is idle to raise moral principles in times of amorality.
It may, at some point in time, be taken up by the higher judiciary, as did the apex court in 1994 when they set some moral principles as legal standards to save Constitutional Democracy from becoming a plaything. The judgment in the Bommai case (AIR 1994 SC 1918) was by way of a necessary intervention to restore the commitment to Federalism in our constitution that the Congress party had distorted with impunity for many years beginning 1967 when it played around with state governments run by the opposition parties then.
That leaves me with raising the issues that could come up soon and involving constitutional offices. Among those is whatever Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar will do from now on. Now that the session is over with the confidence vote having been moved, discussed and voted upon, the speaker has all the time he needs to decide on the letters of resignation the ‘rebel’ MLAs had submitted to him. We now know some of them were torn to shreds by DK Shivakumar. The speaker now could decide, without wasting time, to accept all those while the ‘rebels’ may argue that they had not resigned because their letters were shred into pieces.
In other words, while the speaker may like to do his job now and reduce the strength of the Assembly by more than a dozen and cause by-elections in at least as many Assembly constituencies, the rebels may argue that they have changed their minds and that they will prefer to serve the people who elected them for the rest of the term. Both these are not strictly consistent with moral principles and are squarely unethical. But then, conditions are different and Sraffa could be invoked to explain these as constitutional or otherwise.
The lone BSP MLA, if one goes by the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, is well within his rights to contest against his expulsion from the party because he was bound by his own whip to vote for, against or abstain from voting on the confidence motion. Mahesh, however, shall not contest his party’s decision and the expulsion, after all, serves him best. None other than the new chief minister who will be sworn in soon can stop him from becoming a minister or hold some other office of profit. Mahesh will, in the natural course, prefer to profit out of his decision.
This is where the ‘rebels’ have a disadvantage after having submitted their resignation from the Assembly. But then, there are various other ways they can make good this disadvantage and it is beyond my imagination to spell out those. They, indeed, must be credited with lot more ingenuity to devise means to make good whatever they could lose by giving up their position as MLA.
It is mere coincidence that the challenges to propriety as they arose in 1989 when SR Bommai lost the chief minister’s job after a few of his erstwhile supporters decided to pull the rug (and Kumarasamy’s father HD Deve Gowda was among those behind the rug-pullers then) prompted intervention by the apex court that rendered something essentially moral into legal is raising in another way from the very same state. There are many more similarities as much as difference between then and now. But that is another matter.
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V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok. .