On Wednesday, 13 November, the Supreme Court upheld the disqualification of 17 rebel MLAs by former Karnataka Assembly Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar.
However, while doing so, the judges struck down the part of the former speaker’s orders which said the MLAs were disqualified for the term of the current Assembly (till 2023). As a result, the Congress and JD(S) rebels, who brought down the coalition government in the state, will be able to stand for the upcoming bypolls – which are being held as a result of their own resignations.
But what’s the backstory?
Back in July, these MLAs (three from the JD(S) and 14 from the Congress), had offered to resign and skipped a crucial trust vote for the then Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, leading to the fall of the coalition government in the state.
Following this, the then Speaker Ramesh Kumar disqualified all 17 MLAs under the anti-defection law for the entire term of the ongoing Assembly in the state. The MLAs, in turn, filed appeals against their disqualification in the Supreme Court.
On 21 September, the Election Commission announced bypolls to various state Assembly seats across the country, including in 15 of the 17 rebels’ constituencies in Karnataka. At the request of the rebel MLAs, the apex court stayed the bypolls in Karnataka till it delivered its verdict.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court saw several days of high-stakes drama after several MLAs from the Congress and JD(S) in Karnataka approached the apex court, arguing that the Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar had failed to make a decision on their resignations.
This came in the middle of a public spectacle of the MLAs going to Mumbai to avoid being influenced by Congress leader DK Shivakumar and rumours of an ‘Operation Kamal’ by the BJP to have the government fall.
The ‘rebel’ MLAs claimed that they had offered their resignations in writing, following the correct procedure, but the Speaker was delaying his decision without justification. If the resignations were accepted, it would have meant the end of the Congress-JD(S) coalition government, as it would no longer command a majority in the Assembly.
The Speaker argued at the time that he had to conduct an inquiry into whether or not the resignations were genuine under Article 190 of the Constitution, and that he also had to take a call on the disqualification of some of them for the alleged violation of the anti-defection law.
The rebel MLAs approached the Supreme Court back in July to challenge the delay in deciding their resignations. The apex court held then that the Speaker could not be forced to deliver a decision on the resignations within a set timeframe as the Constitution indeed allowed him to conduct an inquiry.
However, the Bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi also held that while the Speaker decided on the resignations, the MLAs could not be forced to take part in any Assembly proceedings, including a trust vote in HD Kumaraswamy’s government, which was to take place in the subsequent days.
The rebel MLAs were therefore able to skip the crucial trust vote, leading to the end of the coalition government, consequently allowing BJP leader BS Yeddiyurappa to form the government.
By the end of July, Kumar had disqualified the 17 rebel MLAs under para 2(1)(a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India – the dreaded anti-defection law. He expressly clarified it meant they would cease to be members of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly “till the term of the incumbent Assembly of Karnataka”.