It has long been observed that the smooth functioning of parliamentary democracy depends upon constitutional conventions. Put simply, a constitutional convention refers to a set of uncodified norms that are sanctified by a long tradition of unbroken practice. Political functionaries tend to adhere to these norms either out of a sense of public duty, or out of fear of paying a political cost by breaking them.
A written Constitution can reduce the extent to which governance relies upon conventions. It cannot, however, eliminate them. The range of human behaviour can never completely be captured in a text. In a written Constitution with judicial review, an extra wrinkle is added to the situation: it creates situations where courts may be asked to rule upon the scope and the content of these conventions, and – in exceptional circumstances – even asked to guarantee their enforcement. This will require the Court to enter the “political thicket” (see this recent article by Mukund Unny), along with all its attendant dangers.
All this is difficult enough. In India today, however, there is an even further layer of complexity. Constitutional conventions and judicial review depend upon one basic premise: that constitutional functionaries tasked with implementing constitutional conventions act in good faith. For example, parliamentary democracy vests substantial power in the office of the Speaker of the House. The Speaker of the House conventionally comes from the ruling party, but once they occupy the Chair, they are expected to shed their partisan affiliation, and impartially administer the rules of the House (including its conventions). The presumption of the Speaker’s impartiality is the underlying basis for another very important constitutional convention: that Courts shall not be called upon to adjudicate disputes relating to what goes on in Parliament. The Parliament has its own adjudicating authority – the Speaker – and the doctrine of the separation of powers requires Courts to defer absolutely to how the Speaker manages the affairs of the House.
However, once it becomes clear – as it arguably has become in India – that Speakers repeatedly and blatantly act according to partisan motives (the conduct of the last Lok Sabha speaker in certifying money bills and refusing to hold votes of confidence is a case in point), a judicialisation of the Speaker’s conduct becomes inevitable. If opposition parties have good reason to believe that the game in the House is rigged, they have little choice but to go to Court. And the Court is then faced with an impossible situation: constitutional conventions require it to stay out of Parliament, but at the same time, staying out would result in another set of conventions being violated with impunity. There is no clean – or good – answer in such a situation.
What is happening in Karnataka represents a classic example of the breakdown of constitutional conventions, and its knock-on effect upon the judiciary. Recall that the ruling Congress-JDS combine in Karnataka has a thin majority. Recently, a number of MLAs of the ruling combine offered their resignations to the Speaker. The result of this would be to deprive the ruling combine of its majority, and offer the chance to the opposition BJP to stake a claim to form the government. The MLAs have argued that they are resigning of their own free will, while the Congress-JDS argues that they have been bribed and threatened by the BJP to do so.
At this point, Article 190 of the Constitution comes into play. Article 190 provides that MLA resignations are to be offered to the Speaker. It also allows the Speaker the discretion to reject the resignations if, in her view, they are not “voluntary or genuine.” Article 190, therefore, presumes that legislators act in good faith when resigning, and makes the Speaker the judge of that. What Article 190 does not do – indeed, what it cannot do – is to guarantee that the Speaker herself will act in good faith (that presumption is a constitutional convention).
Before the Supreme Court, the legislators have argued that the Speaker is deliberately delaying deciding on the resignation letters, and therefore violating his duty to act in good faith. They have asked the Court to direct the Speaker to decide upon the resignations in a “time bound manner” (notice that the idea of a judicial authority “directing” the Speaker of the House to do anything would be unheard of in most parliamentary democracies in the general course of things, and indeed, that is what the Speaker himself effectively said after the Supreme Court passed an interim order). The legislators have also argued that if the Speaker is acting out of partisan motives: basically, he is waiting until the ruling combine issues a three-line whip to its party members, at which point, the anti-defection Tenth Schedule will kick in. The moment the rebel legislators vote against the whip, their resignations will become infructuous, because disqualification will kick in.
As mentioned above, this puts the Court – which will hand down its order in the case tomorrow – in an impossible situation. The existence of partisan Speakers is an indisputable fact (indeed, there is already a pending petition before a Constitution Bench on the issue of Speakers deliberately sitting on disqualification decisions in order to allow ruling parties to maintain their majority). But the existence of horse-trading and defections in order to secure ministerial berths or for other similar reasons, is equally indisputable. But while both these facts are indisputable, for obvious reasons, and to avoid a complete breakdown of governance, neither of these can be acknowledged in the open, and in Court. The Court, thus, has to pretend that constitutional functionaries act in good faith, while – in specific cases – carve out remedies that are meant to operate in a world in which they do not.
What is the Court to do in a case like this? One – tempting – solution that it must avoid is full-scale intervention. That will swiftly drag the Court into the political weeds, and will make accusations of partisanship inevitable. Already, the Court has been placed in a situation where whatever it does will have the direct effect of favouring one set of political parties over the other. That is a very dangerous position for a constitutional court to find itself in.
The contours of a solution, however, might be visible from the Court’s own precedent: in particular, what it did in Karnataka last year, when the controversy was about government formation. In that case, the tables were somewhat reversed: the issue concerned the actions of the Governor in allowing the BJP to form the government despite the Congress-JDS’ claims to having a majority, and then allowing the Chief Minister fourteen days to prove his majority (it was alleged that this inordinately long time was given to enable the BJP to use its superior financial power to buy out opposition MLAs). The Court refused a full-scale intervention (i.e., setting aside the Governor’s decision), but it did reduce the time given to the Chief Minister to 48 hours, by ordering a videographed floor test. The BJP was unable to prove its majority, and ultimately, the Congress-JDS combine came to power.
The Supreme Court thus accomplished two things: first, it simply made it more difficult for the parties involved to act in bad faith, by reducing the time period to 48 hours; and secondly, its solution was not judicial (setting aside or upholding the governor’s action as valid), but parliamentary – a floor test. The blueprint, therefore, seems to be this: the task of the Court in cases like these is to fashion a remedy where the solution to the crisis is found through the existing democratic processes, but where it becomes far more difficult for constitutional functionaries to subvert the process and break conventions by acting in bad faith. In the present controversy, that might be accomplished by the following solution: the Court asks the Speaker to decide upon the resignations within a reasonable time (but enough time for the Speaker to make an enquiry as envisaged by Article 190), but makes it clear that the Speaker’s decision will be subject to judicial review under the Bommai standard (relevance/existence of material and an absence of mala fides). If it is later found that the Speaker acted wrongly, his decision on the resignations will be set aside, and – as happened in the Arunachal Pradesh case – status quo ante as of today will be restored, with the resignations now being treated as valid. In the meantime, the other democratic processes (the trust vote, the operation of the anti-defection law etc.) can go on as per their own logic.
This solution, it is submitted, would respect the constitutional authority given to the Office of the Speaker, while also subjecting him to judicial oversight in case he decides to act in bad faith. At the same time, it would allow the Speaker to form an assessment of whether the rebel legislators are acting in good faith or not, with the knowledge that his decision can – and will – be challenged. And the Court is saved from wading into murky political disputes (for now) in a way that will open it up to accusations of partisan bias.
This is, of course, an imperfect solution; and there may be other potential solutions that may strike the balance better (should the Court insist that the decision on resignations precede the trust vote/three line whip? Would that involve a direction to delay the state budget? Etc.). But I want to make one final point: the very fact that we are here today discussing the range of alternatives open to the Court demonstrates a disturbing development. The repeated bad faith actions and breaches of constitutional conventions by political functionaries have created a gaping, open space that is being filled by judicial supremacy. This has been going on for a while now: Speakers’ partisan decisions on certifying money bills has made court challenges inevitable; Governors’ partisanship and horse-trading has made judicial interventions into government formation inevitable; and so on. The beginning of all this, of course, was the repeated and unprincipled imposition of President’s Rule, which first dragged the Court into such questions.
But dragging the Court into this domain presents a deep threat to judicial independence: a Court whose decisions will regularly have such huge political ramifications presents a ripe and tempting target for capture, to unscrupulous political parties. It is for this reason that, in every case of this sort, the Court must be profoundly careful about what it is doing, and what the consequences of that are – because, ironic as it may sound, judicial supremacy in the political process is the shortest road to a compromised judiciary.
(Postscript: An additional point – and an additional way in which the Supreme Court, in particular, can avoid being tainted by a partisan brush – is the importance of sticking to procedural rules in cases like this. It is unclear how an Article 32 petition is maintainable in the present case – and even more unclear why the Supreme Court did not ask the parties to approach the Karnataka High Court as the jurisdictional forum (recall that a similar case from Tamil Nadu, involving the AIADMK was argued before the Madras High Court). This becomes particularly pertinent because the present Court has indeed sent constitutional cases back to the High Courts recently (the challenge to the Aadhaar ordinance being a good example). Ensuring that such cases come to it through proper channels will help the Supreme Court – as an institution – to avoid one particular Article 32-shaped pitfall. Of course, that issue is now infructuous, in the present case. I am grateful to Suhrith Parthasarathy for having pointed this out to me.)