The Supreme Court on 18 March disagreed with former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s proposal to produce the 16 rebel INC MLAs in the court on 19 March. The court said it wanted to “allay the apprehension” that the MLAs were held captive. This, despite the fact that the rebels had issued a video message in the morning saying clearly that they did not want to meet any former colleague from the party they had left behind, let alone go back to that party!
When the BJP side argued that these MLAs had volunteered to move to Bengaluru for some days, the apex court pointed out that the whole affair must look fair, whatever be the truth. “We are not saying they are held captive. Our concern is to allay the apprehension,” the court said.
“It is their choice whether they want to enter, comply with whips etc. But certainly, when the allegation is that they are being held in captivity, we have to see they are at free will. These 16 either proceed to the floor or don’t but surely they can’t be held captive and how do we ensure this?” the bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta said.
Supreme Court believes this is not interference in legislature
The court said it was not going to come in the way of the legislature to decide who enjoyed the trust. At the same time, said the court, it had to ensure that there was a free exercise of choice for these 16 MLAs.
The Supreme Court asked the speaker whether he could make up his mind about the validity of resignations of MLAs when they appeared before him on 19 March and said, the “latest judgment asks the speaker to decide quickly. Tell us when will you decide”.
Appearing for the speaker, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi tried to procrastinate the matter, saying, “I don’t want the speaker’s discretion to be curtailed. I can inform about it tomorrow morning.” But senior advocate Maninder Singh, appearing for the 16 rebel MLAs, objected: “We do not want to appear before the Speaker. It is a question of our safety.” Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi had made the same submission.
The Supreme Court turned down the proposal from the rebel INC MLAs and Chouhan to allow them to appear in the highest court or before the registrar general of the Karnataka High Court so that the judiciary knows that they had not been held as hostages. “As a constitutional court, we have to discharge our duties,” said the bench.
The court said it was aware of the fact that the 16 rebel MLAs in Madhya Pradesh could make or break the state government.
The court then asked both the sides to help it ensure that all MLAs could attend the assembly of their free will.
Strong arguments that could not move Supreme Court
Rohatgi had also questioned how the INC’s plea could be maintained, asking how a political party could ask for access to rebel MLAs in their petition. The problem is that the Congress wants the rebel MLAs to go to Bhopal so that they can be lured and it can do horse-trading, he said, but the court did not look impressed.
The rebel MLAs told the bench categorically that they were not willing to meet their former party colleagues. They said they were ready to face consequences as per the constitution. “The speaker cannot sit on our resignations. Can he choose to accept some resignations and not others because a political game is going on?” asked the MLAs.
The MLAs’ lawyer Singh said their right to resign was constitutional. He asked what the corresponding duty of the speaker was when MLAs resigned. He referred to the public expression of their will by way of a press conference where they had declared that their decisions had been driven by their own free will and the same had been sworn in their affidavits as well. “We aren’t abducted and are producing this evidence in a CD to the court. We don’t want to meet the Congress leaders, there is no principle of law to compel us,” the MLAs told the bench.
Earlier, the INC had asked for a postponement of the trust vote in the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly to 26 March or until the by-polls for the vacant seats were concluded. They said “heavens are not going to fall” if the Kamal Nath government was allowed to remain in office till then.
Rohatgi opposed the contention saying, after the resignations of 22 INC MLAs, out of which six resignations had been accepted, the state government could not be allowed to continue even for a day.
The Madhya Pradesh Congress Legislature party (MPCLP) on 17 March had moved the Supreme Court while Chouhan had taken the matter to the highest court of the country the previous day. The INC wanted from the Supreme Court a direction to the union government and the BJP-led Karnataka government to grant it access to communicate with its rebel MLAs allegedly held in Bengaluru. On the other hand, Chouhan, joined later by nine rebels from the INC, had moved the court against the delay in conducting the trust vote with the excuse of coronavirus.
The court had on Tuesday asked the Kamal Nath government to respond to Chouhan’s plea by Wednesday but it will file the reply on Thursday.
CM defied governor
Governor Lalji Tandon, after his address to the assembly, had written to Chief Minister Kamal Nath to seek a trust vote on 16 March, saying that the government was in minority. Tandon had said this on the basis of the fact that the speaker had accepted the resignation of six INC MLAs on 14 March, which left the ruling party with 108 legislators, out of which 16 had rebelled.
Kamal Nath defied the governor, shooting back three letters against Tandon’s two. Meanwhile, the speaker has not yet accepted the resignations of the non-ministerial MLAs.
The BJP now has 107 seats in the House. With the help of 22 rebels from the rival camp, it can easily defeat Kamal Nath’s trust vote in the assembly of an effective strength of 222, as the majority mark is now 112.
The court would resume hearing the matter risen due to the cross petitions of Chouhan and the INC on Thursday at 10:30 AM.