In a severe blow to the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government in Haryana just six days ahead of the assembly elections, the Punjab and Haryana high court on Thursday not only held the switchover of five Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC-Bhajan Lal) MLAs to the Congress in 2009 as unconstitutional but also disqualified them as members of the legislative assembly on the grounds of defection.
The decision came from the court headed by justice K Kannan while allowing the petition filed by HJC chief Kuldeep Bishnoi, who had challenged Vidhan Sabha speaker Kuldeep Sharma’s order passed on January 13, 2013. The speaker had rejected Bishnoi’s application seeking disqualification of the five defector MLAs and questioning then speaker Harmohinder Singh Chattha’s November 9, 2009, order admitting the plea of ‘merger’ of the MLAs into the Congress.
Rao Narendra Singh and Satpal Sangwan (both ministers), Vinod Bhayana (chief parliamentary secretary), and MLAs Zile Ram Sharma and Dharam Singh Chhokar, had switched sides to the Congress in November 2009 to help the Congress, short of majority after the 2009 assembly elections, form the government. The HJC had won six seats in the 2009 assembly polls, with Bishnoi being one of the MLAs.
Welcoming the court judgment, Bishnoi said the ‘landmark’ verdict would adversely affect the Congress’ electoral prospects.
Justice Kannan ordered, “They (five MLAs) are also disqualified to hold any remunerative political post for the duration of the period commencing from the respective dates of voluntarily giving up their membership from the party (November 9 and 10)… as provided under Article 361B of the Constitution. However, any actions performed or decisions taken, while already occupying such remunerative political post till the time of pronouncement of this judgment shall not be rendered invalid.”
Speaker’s order wrong, not mala fide
“A wrong decision of the speaker, surely it was, as we have found, but not a mala fide one,” remarked justice Kannan.
He added, “In this case, there has been absolutely no proof of merger of the original political party, HJC (BL). If I say that the decision of the speaker (Harmohinder Singh Chatha) in the first instance on November 9, 2009, was against the constitutional mandate, I say so because the letter written by the (five) legislators on November 9, 2009, and the decision taken on the same day were literally on no evidence produced. The evidence was that more than two/third members of the legislative party had decided to merge. It offered no proof of the fact that the original political party had actually merged. The speaker who had received the letter from the Congress that the HJC (BL) had merged with them did not think it necessary surprisingly to look for a similar letter even from the leader of that political party which had merged (Kuldeep Bishnoi).”
‘Merged’ party exists in assembly
The court observed, “It was indeed a paradoxical situation that the House (assembly) witnessed: an alleged merged party that must have ceased to exist was very much present in the very same House. This contradiction is possibly only in one situation i.e. when the original political party has merged with another party but the legislature party member did not accept the merger and chooses to remain in the party on whose ticket he contested and won the election. In any other situation, the presence of the original political party member in the House is not possible. If it happens, it is itself a sure pointer to the wrong decision of the speaker.”
Virtual strictures against speaker
“The speaker had no material at all to take such a decision. He had abdicated the constitutional trust in having to render a decision which was sacrosanct. No other authority could have adjudged on the plea of merger when a challenge was brought before him. The Constitution that places the speaker as the singular authority casts an additional burden which regular tribunals or courts seldom confront,” observed justice K Kannan of the Punjab and Haryana high court.
November 9, 2009: Haryana assembly speaker Harmohinder Singh Chatha allows merger of 5 HJC (Bhajan Lal) MLAs in Congress
December 9, 2009: Kuldeep Bishnoi challenges merger before speaker
December 20, 2010: HC single-judge bench directs speaker to decide Bishnoi’s petition in 4 months
December 20, 2011: HC division bench orders that 5 MLAs would not be members of any party till final adjudication of disqualification petitions by the speaker
January 4, 2012: Apex court stays HC division bench order
January 13, 2013: Speaker Kuldeep Sharma holds merger of two political parties as conclusive
February 8, 2013: Bishnoi approaches HC, challenging the speaker’s order
October 9, 2014: High court holds HJC-Cong ‘merger’ bad in law, disqualifies MLAs