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  Opinion   Columnists  20 May 2018  SC must set clear rules to ensure ethical polity

SC must set clear rules to ensure ethical polity

The writer, an author and former diplomat, is a member of the JD(U).
Published : May 20, 2018, 5:30 am IST
Updated : May 20, 2018, 5:31 am IST

PM Modi held 21 rallies, and credit must be given to the indefatigable energy he invested to boost the BJP’s prospects.

Supreme Court of India (Photo: PTI)
 Supreme Court of India (Photo: PTI)

What has unfolded in Karnataka has made one thing abundantly clear — the world’s largest democracy must establish some definitive and transparent rules, in order to retain its credibility. The prospect of no single party getting a clear majority on its own in many states, and even in the parliamentary elections due in 2019, looms large. If this happens, the grey zones, where the distinction between morality and legal interpretations blur as per convenience, must cease to exist. Each political player must know that in the event of a hung House, these are the rules of the game, and no amount of skulduggery can change how the democratic script will play out.

The shenanigans in Karnataka provide a perfect trigger for the Supreme Court to lay down these clear-cut rules. The highest court in the land has risen to the occasion in the past. There was the landmark judgment in the S.R. Bommai case in 1985, which made clear that a party that claims a majority must do so on the floor of the House, and not in the drawing room of the governor. This eliminated the subjective satisfaction of the governor, or even the President of India, as the criteria for a political party to lay claim to a majority. Even earlier, Parliament had passed the amendment to the 10th Schedule of the Constitution, relating to defections, to prevent horse-trading and the blatant misuse of money power to buy legislators. In 2005, some more principles were laid down by the Supreme Court in the Rameshwar Prasad case.

But obviously, these are not enough. Frankly, however much legal pundits may quibble, there is no categorical clarity on what course of action has legitimacy in a hung House. Does the governor invite the single largest party first? Does he give priority to a pre-poll alliance? Or does he choose a post-poll alliance? There are precedents to support either of these choices. When it has suited it, the Congress has supported the principle of priority being given to the single largest party. This was seen, most recently, in the elections in Goa, Tripura and Meghalaya, where it was the single largest party. On that occasion, the BJP argued that a post-poll alliance has the first right to be invited to form the government, because it was not the single largest party. Now, in Karnataka, the two parties argued precisely the opposite: the BJP asserted that the single largest party must be preferred, and the Congress espoused the rights of the post-poll alliance.

Certain facts are clear. The BJP did well in the Karnataka elections, but not well enough. It emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats, but not a clear majority. In spite of the choreographed projections of euphoria on behalf of BJP spokespersons, the party must introspect why, after five years of the Siddaramaiah government — and the mood of anti-incumbency it was expected to generate — it did not get a clear majority on its own. This question becomes all the more relevant since the BJP had pulled out all the stops to secure this majority. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held 21 rallies, and credit must be given to the indefatigable energy he invested to boost the BJP’s prospects. Dozens of Central ministers were parked for days in Bengaluru. No stone was left unturned to influence voters. And yet, the majority mark remained elusive.

This was in stark contrast to what happened in 2013, when after five years of BJP rule the Congress led by Mr Siddaramaiah got a clear majority of 122 seats. Quite clearly, five years later, the BJP could not repeat this. Either there was not that degree of anti-incumbency sentiment against Mr Siddaramaiah, or the mood against the BJP was not that positive, or the efforts put in by Rahul Gandhi, helming the Congress, was effective enough to ensure that the BJP did not do as well as it hoped to.

In all of this, what has certainly gone out of the democratic window is any notion of public morality. All concerns about corruption were finessed by caste calculations. Only this can explain the choice of B.S. Yeddyurappa, who had spent time in jail on corruption charges, as the BJP’s CM candidate. His strength was not probity, but his alleged hold on the powerful Lingayat community. The tainted Ballari brothers were taken on board by the BJP merely on winnability considerations. Unfortunately, it is now accepted that the high constitutional office of the governor will not necessarily be objective.  A disgusted public has also accepted that when it comes to securing a majority, horse trading, involving mind-boggling amounts of money, will be the choice of political parties. “Resort” politics, where legislators who are empowered to make laws that will affect our lives, are herded into stringently enforced insulation so that they can be prevented from being bribed, is accepted as the norm. It is also accepted that biased presiding officers of the Assembly will do the needful to evade the provisions of the anti-defection law.

The bitter truth is that we are becoming a very sordid democracy. I don’t think politicians will reform. That is why the Supreme Court must intervene and lay down a new set of clear-cut guidelines, on how we can endeavour to run a more ethical democracy, and intervene again, proactively, to ensure that its rules are enforced. Otherwise we will continue to have such situations where, in the pursuit of power, each party, throwing all principles to the wind, will quote whatever precedent or legality that suits it. This ambivalence must end.

As I finish writing this, Mr Yeddyurappa has resigned prior to the trust vote, without facing it, obviously as he did not have the numbers. The Supreme Court’s intervention was critical in fast-forwarding the vote to prevent horse trading, disallowing a secret ballot as sought by the BJP, and instructing that the trust vote proceedings be videographed. Democracy is the stronger for this. For the future, it would be good for the Supreme Court to come up with comprehensive and stringent guidelines for the dignified and ethical conduct of our polity.

Tags: supreme court, karnataka elections, siddaramaiah government