Indian legislatures have been a spectacle of hooliganism, members fighting on the floor of the house, forcibly removing the Speaker from his chair or raising slogans to drown the proceedings in the noise engineered. But never before did any assembly make a sham of no-confidence vote to save the government.
This happened a few days ago in the state of Karnataka, which is equal to Germany in area. The vote of no-confidence was against the ruling BJP. The government summoned the armed police in the house to discipline the members and get the requisite members under order.
That the whole process was against the letter and spirit of the constitution goes without saying. Yet the tragedy is that the BJP is not realizing the harm it has done to the polity. It is blaming other parties for murdering democracy. The boot is on the other leg. However, what is disconcerting is that the BJP has set a precedent which can make a mockery of a majority in the legislature if the government gets away with it.
The house has a strength of 224, of which 117 are members of the BJP. Some 16 of them bolted the party and wrote to the state Governor that they have withdrawn their support for the government. This reduced the ruling partys strength to 106, seven short of a simple majority. The governor ordered the government to seek a vote of confidence.
Now the Speaker, who is supposed to be independent, comes into the picture. He disqualified 16 of them, along with five independents, under the anti-defection law. (A member who votes against the party on whose ticket he contested the election is disqualified. But this is after he or she has voted, not before.) But the Speaker, owing to his allegiance to the BJP, acted before the voting so that the party could have a majority in the reduced strength of the house.
Still the BJP won only by three votes and that too by disqualifying the independents. If the party was to win, the independents had to be disqualified. Since it was a tainted majority that the BJP managed, the house broke into pandemonium and a free for all followed.
The disqualified members and others went to Raj Bhavan and sought the Governors intervention, who sent a report to the President requesting Presidents rule for the state. This was not something extraordinary. He could not only be a spectator when the disqualified members approached him regarding the matter that they were not allowed to enter the house to exercise their right to vote. The disqualified members also went to the state high court which had not given its ruling at the time of writing this column.
The point at issue is not the governors report or the high courts judgment. The question which needs to be answered is how to determine a majority. There has to be voting, by clearing the house of unwanted elements. Just voice-voting, a procedure which the Speaker of Karnataka assembly adopted, cannot be taken as decisive.
The anti-defection law has to be changed because the action against the defectors is taken after they have voted. Shouldnt their letter to the Speaker three days before voting where they did not accept the chief minister as their leader be considered a proof of their defection? In that case the Speakers action gets validity. However, there is also a case to amend the anti-defection law because it gives the rebels a power which they can misuse. At present they can be disqualified only after voting or, for that matter, pulling the government down.
Some of the 16 members had been reportedly bribed. The nations indignation over such a practice is understandable. That all political parties have indulged in it in the past is no defence. I know of several instances where the ruling parties, including the Congress, have bought members to survive a vote of no-confidence. Giving concessions to regional ruling parties, which even the Manmohan Singh government has done, adds up to the same thing.
Ours is a young democracy which can be unsettled if political parties do not think beyond power. It is yet a tender plant which has to be nourished. Knowing that there is too much at stake for political partieslosing power or staying in officepublic opinion has to be built against what has been going on in the country for many years. Parties cannot be allowed to run roughshod of rules and regulations. The only way out is that people must vote out parties indulging in corruption and defection.
There is some justification in the charge that what happened at Karnataka was the result of the confrontation between the Congress and the BJP, two main parties. No doubt, the Karnataka governor, H.R. Bhardwaj, was a Congress minister before he went to Bangalore. And there is no doubt that the assembly Speaker was a BJP member before he was elected to the office. It is sad that both carried with them loyalty to their original parties when the two offices demanded that they would not carry with them the baggage of the past.
True, the two parties are on the path of confrontation. But it is too soon to traverse such a path when the parliamentary elections are more than three years away. They can try their strength if and when the assembly is dissolved or fresh elections are called for. This may turn out to be the only way out in Karnataka.
The larger picture needs both parties to reach a consensus for the sake of the development of the country as well as defence. Both need to look beyond party politics. The nation is sick and tired of their wrangling. It is looking for an alternative which may not be readily available but is visible on the horizon.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist.