New Delhi: Soon after the Supreme Court cut short the time given to the Yeddyurappa government to prove its majority in the assembly and set the date at May 19, Karnataka governor Vajubhai Vala appointed K.G. Bopaiah – an old RSS member and BJP MLA from Virajpet – as pro-tem speaker under whose supervision the vote of confidence will be held.
The Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), whose petition led to the advancing of the confidence vote, denounced the appointment of Bopaiah as an attempt by the BJP to subvert the process and are likely to move the Supreme Court.
Bopaiah has the distinction of the Supreme Court passing strictures against him for a decision he took as speaker in 2010 in the run-up to a crucial vote of confidence Then, as now, the chief minister was Yeddyurappa.
The Congress and JD(S) had hoped the governor would nominate – as per convention – the senior-most MLA, R.V. Deshpande of the Congress, as pro-tem speaker. Indeed, the legislature secretariat had recommended Deshpande’s name for it.
Interestingly, the governor also ignored the BJP’s Umesh Vishwanath Katti, elected MLA seven times since 1985 from Hukkeri, Belagavi. His name too had been forwarded by the secretariat. According to observers in Bengaluru, Bopaiah’s RSS antecedents and his past record of bailing the previous Yeddyurappa government out of a crisis in 2011 could have worked in his favour.
Responding to Congress protests against Bopaiah’s appointment, BJP leader and election-in-charge of Karnataka Prakash Javadekar tweeted:
“Shri KG Bopaiah was appointed as Pro Tem speaker even in 2008 by the then Governor. That time Bopaiah was 10 years younger than what he is today. The Congress is thus raising hoax objection. The appointment of Bopaiah Ji is as per rules and regulations”
On Friday, when the Supreme Court said the floor test had to happen in a day, it also laid down the procedures for it. The three-judge bench, comprising Justices A.M. Sikri, S.A.Bobde and Ashok Bhushan, said that a pro-tem speaker shall be appointed to “conduct the floor test on 19.05.2018 at 04.00 P.M in order to ascertain the majority.”
Usually, a pro-tem speaker is appointed by the governor or the president to administer oaths for the newly-elected legislators and helps the house to elect a new speaker, who would then conduct the floor test. However, in this situation, the Supreme Court asked the pro-tem speaker to conduct the floor test.
The governor’s decision to defy convention in choosing the pro-tem speaker, therefore, has raised many eyebrows as the floor test is most likely to become a tug-of-war contest between the two political fronts. The BJP has only 104 MLAs. The half way mark plus one is 112 – since only 222 out of 224 seats went to polls – and reports of the party trying to poach and bribe opposition MLAs have been doing the rounds.
Since JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy won two seats but will have only one vote, and the pro tem speaker cannot vote except in case of a tie, the effective half-way mark in the assembly is 110, which means Yeddyurappa is seven short of that figure (actually six counting Bopaiah’s vote).
The governor had given Yeddyurappa 15 days to prove his majority but on the Congress’s plea, the Supreme Court advanced the floor test to prevent horse-trading and also intervened in the one-day old BJP government’s decision to nominate an Anglo-Indian MLA to the assembly.
This means the BJP will have to get at least seven opposition MLAs to cross-vote or get 15 to abstain or remain absent during voting – bringing the total votes cast to 208 and thus making 104 a majority (with Bopaiah adding his casting vote to make it 105).
It’s problem is that it has only a day’s time for this tough task.
Although any violation of the Congress or JD(S) whip may lead to the disqualification of the guilty legislators according to the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, the anti-defection law kicks in after they would have done Yeddyurappa’s bidding.
In any case, the law is riddled with loop-holes and has not been implemented much. A similar situation in Manipur, where opposition MLAs have escaped disqualification despite cross-voting, is a case in point.
Who is Bopaiah?
This is where the governor – i.e. the BJP’s – choice of Bopaiah becomes significant. A Sangh parivar footsoldier, Bopaiah is one of the most-trusted aides of Yeddyurappa.
Back in October 2010, during the previous BJP-led government (2008-2013), 11 ruling party’s MLAs and five independents had rebelled against Yeddyurappa’s leadership. At the time, the government was already in crisis because of the infamous Rs 35,000 crore illegal mining scam.
This was when Bopaiah came to Yeddyurappa’s rescue. Acting on an application from the chief minister, Bopaiah, as speaker, disqualified all the MLAs and saved his government. He took this decision despite the disgruntled MLAs emphasising that they continued to be members of the BJP but only wanted a change in the leadership as they had lost confidence in Yeddyurappa.
His decision to disqualify the 11 MLAs before they had acted on the floor of the house against any party whip was upheld in the high court but the Supreme Court later overturned it. A bench comprising Justices Altamas Kabir and Cyriac Joseph thought that Bopaiah’s hasty decision disqualifying the rebel MLAs violated the principles of natural justice and fair play.
“Extraneous considerations are writ large on the face of the order of the speaker and the same has to be set aside. The speaker, in our view, proceeded in the matter as if he was required to meet the deadline set by the governor, irrespective of whether, in the process, he was ignoring the constitutional norms set out in the Tenth Schedule to the constitution and the Disqualification Rules, 1986, and in contravention of the basic principles that go hand-in-hand with the concept of a fair hearing.
“There was no compulsion on the speaker to decide the disqualification application filed by Mr Yeddyurappa in such a great hurry within the time specified by the governor to the speaker to conduct a vote of confidence in the government headed by Mr Yeddyurappa. It would appear that such a course of action was adopted by the speaker on October 10, 2010, since the vote of vonfidence on the Floor of the House was slated for October 12, 2010.
“The element of hot haste is also evident in the action of the speaker in this regard as well. The procedure adopted by the speaker seems to indicate that he was trying to meet the time schedule set by the governor for the trial of strength in the assembly and to ensure that the appellants and the other independent MLAs stood disqualified prior to the date on which the floor test was to be held.
“The vote of confidence took place on October 11, 2010, in which the disqualified members could not participate and, in their absence Mr.Yeddyurappa was able to prove his majority in the house. Unless it was to ensure that the trust vote did not go against the chief minister, there was no conceivable reason for the speaker to have taken up the disqualification application in such a great hurry.”
It is in this context that opposition parties fear that Bopaiah may again come to the rescue of Yeddyurappa and may not conduct the floor test with complete independence.
One Congress leader told The Wire, “We fear that he may pass the majority vote in favour of Yeddyurappa without objecting/disqualifying any rebel MLAs… And even if the anti-defection law is invoked after the floor test, Yeddyurappa would have already got six months of time before the opposition can move a no-confidence motion. This will circumvent the whole democratic process.”
In case of a tie, the speaker casts his vote. And that’s an additional factor of worry for the Congress and JD(S) alliance. According to a few reports, the Congress may move the Supreme Court against the nomination of Bopaiah on the basis of seniority conventions applied during nomination of pro-tem speaker. A midnight hearing could be likely again.