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Karnataka Speaker: Pro Tem Or Pro BJP?

The outcome is anyone’s guess and one can only wait and watch the latest dance of democracy.

Whenever the legislative assembly of the Parliament or a State assembles for the first time after any election, the situation of the Chair is in limbo. There is no official speaker to administer the oath of office and convene the first session of the house. The Indian parliamentary system employs a pro-tem speaker in such cases, who customarily is the senior most member of the house, preferably from the opposition. Till now not much has been demanded of pro-tem speakers, but that changed today.

The Supreme Court in its order today directed the BJP to prove its majority in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly tomorrow at 4 PM. The government having been inducted yesterday has not given the Governor ample time or opportunity to nominate a pro-tem speaker. In such a scenario, ideally, Mr. RV Deshpande the senior most member of the house by virtue of being an eight time MLA should have been given the honor.

However, there is one minor issue of him being a member of the Indian National Congress, which in the current situation is not deemed ideal by the BJP.

The Governor has instead nominated Mr. KG Bopaiah of the BJP as the pro speaker, ahead of his party-mate Mr. UV Katti who is the second senior most member of the assembly being a seven time MLA.

The pro-tem speaker of any house is appointed for a limited term and for a limited purpose of convening the house and administering oath. However, by virtue of the order of the Supreme Court, Mr. Bopaiah will have the additional task of holding a vote for the BJP to prove its majority in the house. It can be done in two ways, either by a voice vote or by voting in numbers. Since the assembly is virtually hung, the best way would be to hold a vote with each member stating their preference.

Whatever the case, the mandate held by Mr. Bopaiah is very limited and he would be expected to restrict himself to his mandate. It has been made very clear by the Supreme Court that the pro tem speaker is to be nominated for only these two functions.

However, Mr. Bopaiah in the past has not been known to restrain himself. In 2011, when the BJP was in power in Karnataka, Mr. Bopaiah was the speaker of the Legislative Assembly. During that time some MLAs from the BJP rebelled against the party and along with some independent MLAs withdrew support from the Government. Mr. Bopaiah went on to disqualify the rebel MLAs on an application by the ruling party and thus saved the Government from falling. This action was eventually set aside by the Supreme Court after recording scathing observations against Mr. Bopaiah which blamed him for acting in haste against principles of natural justice.   

The Governor by ignoring the two senior most MLAs, and nominating someone who has not covered himself in glory in the past and has been chastised by the Supreme Court, has broken conventions twice within a week. Convention may not be law, but enjoys legal sanctity being customary in nature. Any break from convention must be justified by a dire need for the break, if the same has to be tested before a Court of law to establish that it is a bona fide action. The circumstances surrounding the break in question render it colourable. It is possible that the INC may challenge it on these grounds, as they must, before the floor test. If that fails and Mr. Bopaiah goes beyond his brief as mandated by the Supreme Court then the results of the floor test may get mired in further legal controversies.

The outcome is anyone’s guess and one can only wait and watch the latest dance of democracy.

Chitranshul Sinha is an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court of India.

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