When the Janata Dal (Secular) with 37 and the Congress with 78 seats formed the government last year around this time, it was clear that the two adversaries came together to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out, which was the single largest with 104 seats, and that the resulting JD(S)-Congress government would barely last beyond the Lok Sabha election in 2019. The Congress and the JD(S) had hoped but failed to defeat the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. Logic would have dictated that the Congress and JD(S) hang together much more now than ever before because the BJP has won a commanding majority in the Lok Sabha. But inherently rickety coalitions are bound to break earlier than later. The rumour mills are agog as to who is behind the resignation of three JD(S) and now 15 - initially 10 - Congress legislators. Chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy had made it clear from day one that he is in the most unenviable position and that he would be under immense pressure from the ruthless Congress politicians.
It is then not hard to infer that the resignations from the initial 10 Congress legislators was a pressure tactic to arm-twist the Kumaraswamy government further and that it has the tacit support of Mr Siddaramaiah and other Congress leaders. The Congress as a party would not want to be blackmailing the government.
The "Congress rebels" then carry the onus for the party. The exit of three JD(S) legislators reveals the fissures within the JD(S). There is, of course, the BJP in Karnataka that would want to assume power in the state now that the party has won a creditable victory in the Lok Sabha elections. Defections would be difficult to carry out because the BJP would have to persuade at least 13 legislators from the JD(S), or the much bigger number of 26 from the Congress, to avoid violating the anti-defection law. BJP leaders, both at the Centre and in the state, have put on their poker face saying that they have nothing to do with the resignation fracas though they would be the ultimate beneficiaries. And neither any of the politicians nor the parties are playing by any norms while they certainly want to use all the chinks in the law to score political points.
The resignation ruse is running into an unexpected legal quicksand of its own. It falls upon the Speaker of the state Assembly to accept the resignations of the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). An amendment to Article 190, which prescribes the conditions for a legislator's decision to quit, allows the Speaker to ascertain that the member is not under pressure or intimidation for doing what he or she is doing. The Speaker can disqualify the legislator if reasons for his resignation are not valid. This is the kind of legal impasse only a litigious polity like India would come up with, coming up with remedies worse than the evils that they are supposed to address.
The presiding officer of Indian legislatures, at the Centre as well as in the states, has been found to be a partisan, somewhat like the governor, the other constitutional officeholder. Speaker Ramesh Kumar has to perform the extremely sensitive task of performing a political exercise of saving the government (because the Speaker belongs to the ruling party or coalition) while conforming to the constitutional obligations. It is natural then that the rebel legislators do not trust the impartiality of the Speaker and they approach the Supreme Court, which is what the 10 Congress MLAs have done, and they have now been joined by five more Congress members.
The Supreme Court in its bid to provide relief to the petitioners — the rebel MLAs — could be seen as interfering in the proceedings of the legislature, which in principle is out of bounds for the court. But it is the aggrieved legislators who have approached the apex court, and the court is forced to respond. So, the fines lines that mark the separation of powers between the legislature and judiciary are blurred. So, in the Karnataka resignation drama, the Supreme Court wanted Speaker Ramesh Kumar not to take any decision before Tuesday. It will now pronounce its own verdict on the matter today. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Kumaraswamy asked the Speaker to allot a day for moving the motion of confidence to prove majority of the ruling coalition in the House. Mr Kumar has set that date to be July 18.
Chief Minister Kumaraswamy's gambit is intriguing. He must be relying on the fact that if 18 legislators - 15 from the Congress and three from his JD (S) - are out of reckoning in the House of 224, then the JD(S)-Congress could still hope to survive by a whisker. But there is also the motive and desire to get the rebel legislators disqualified because then they would not be able to contest the by-elections. Many of these rebel legislators could get re-elected if their resignations are accepted. And many of them could walk into the BJP camp. It is a Machiavellian power tussle at its dramatic best.
At the heart of the political crisis is the question: Can an elected representative choose to break away from his party and resign with the intention of contesting again? Will this unleash an unwelcome storm and make turbulence a permanent feature of legislative politics? Should the party in power through the office of the Speaker be in a position to punish the rebel MLA by disqualifying him or her? If the rebel legislator is forced to contest the by-election because he has left the party on the ticket of which he had won, then whatever may be the ulterior motive of the legislator, he should have the right to walk out of the party and contest again. If people disapprove of his action, then they will not re-elect him. The argument that it is irresponsible on the part of a legislator to quit on a whim, and that there should be justifiable reasons for doing so, and that it is for the Speaker to decide whether the reasons for resignation are justified or not, seems a stretch. The party bosses should not be allowed to penalise a rebel legislator.