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17 K’taka MLAs stay disqualified, but can contest imminent bypolls

New Delhi/Bengaluru: The Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday upheld the disqualification of the 17 Congress-JD(S) MLAs in Karnataka whose rebellion led to the fall of the Kumaraswamy government and the return of the BJP to power in July but gave some relief by allowing them to contest the upcoming bypolls to 15 assembly  seats.

As the court struck down the portion of the order of the then Speaker K R Ramesh Kumar by which the legislators were disqualified till the end of the current term of the state assembly in 2023, all eyes were on the BJP’s next move on whether it will give tickets to the Congress-JD(S) rebels.  

Deputy Chief Minister C N Ashwathnarayan said the disqualified MLAs will join the BJP on Thursday in Bengaluru after they expressed interest to be part of the saffron party.

The apex court also said if elected in the bypolls, the disqualified MLAs can become ministers or hold public office.

Observing that constitutional morality should never be replaced by political morality, a three-judge bench of justices N V Ramana, Sanjiv Khanna and Krishna Murari held that the Speaker, in exercise of his powers under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, “does not have the power to either indicate the period for which a person is disqualified, or to bar someone contesting elections”.

The court said there is a growing trend of Speakers acting against the “constitutional duty of being neutral” in addition to political parties indulging in horse-trading and corrupt practices due to which citizens are being denied stable governments.

Ramesh Kumar is a Congress leader.

The Speaker, being a neutral person, is expected to act independently while conducting the proceedings of the House or adjudication petitions, the apex court said.

The constitutional responsibility endowed upon the Speaker has to be scrupulously followed and his political affiliations cannot come in the way of adjudication, the apex court said, adding, there is a need to consider strengthening certain aspects so that such “undemocratic practices” are discouraged and checked.

“We must be careful to remember that the desirability of a particular rule or law, should not in any event be confused with the question of existence of the same, and constitutional morality should never be replaced by political morality, in deciding what the Constitution mandates,” the court said in its 109-page judgment.

The disqualified legislators welcomed the verdict. “The Supreme Court allowing us to contest election is important to us. We welcome it.. We are politicians.. This verdict is important to us,” A H Vishwanath told reporters.

Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa welcomed the verdict and said it was against the “conspiracy” of Ramesh Kumar and Congress leader Siddaramaiah.

But the Congress said the verdict proved that the BJP-led government in the state was “illegal” and sought its dismissal.

While KPCC president Dinesh Gundu Rao asked the BJP not to give tickets to the disqualified legislators if it has “any morality left,” Siddaramaiah said the court’s stand was that defection was “immoral” and “violation of trust of the voter”.

Expressing confidence that the BJP will win all the 15 seats at stake, Yediyurappa said the party would decide on giving tickets to the disqualified MLAs.

The top court gave its verdict on petitions filed by the disqualified MLAs challenging the orders of Ramesh Kumar to disqualify them.

Ramesh Kumar disqualified the 17 legislators – 14 from the Congress and three from the JD(S) – ahead of the trust vote on July 23.

The then chief minister H D Kumaraswamy resigned after losing the trust vote, which paved the way for the BJP-led government in the state under B S Yediyurappa.

Bypolls to 15 out of the 17 assembly seats which fell vacant following the disqualification of the MLAs are scheduled on December 5 and candidates are required to file their nomination papers between November 11 and November 18.

Ramesh Kumar heaved a sigh of relief over the verdict. “Supreme Court has upheld the disqualification – to that extent, it’s a sigh of relief (for me). On the issue of tenure (of disqualification), Supreme Court has not agreed to my interpretation. I will speak on that after going through the text of the judgment,” he told reporters in Bengaluru.

The court said the Speaker’s scope of inquiry regarding acceptance or rejection of a resignation tendered by a member is limited to examine whether it was tendered voluntarily or genuinely.

Ramesh Kumar had come under attack for delay in accepting the resignations of the rebel legislators, who were holed up in a Mumbai hotel for several days amid high drama.

The apex court also deprecated the manner in which the disqualified MLAs directly approached it without first moving the High Court.

The BJP had a smooth sailing in winning the trust vote on July 29, as the disqualification of the 17 Congress-JD(S) MLAs by the Speaker reduced the effective strength of the 225-member assembly to 208.

The magic figure for the simple majority was 105, equivalent to the strength of the BJP, which also commands the support of an Independent.

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