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A plague on both houses

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 12:54 IST
Aditya Sondhi
Aditya Sondhi
Hindustan Times
Prakash Jha

Prakash Jha's Rajneeti, much like Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, was conspicuous by the absence of a typical hero who manifests ethical power. All main characters, amoral or immoral, bore shades of grey. The political developments in Karnataka over the past few days are similar.

The Constitution, as applicable to the states, was scripted with some 'lead characters' in mind — the chief minister, his council of ministers, the opposition, the governor and the speaker. Equally, the Constitution in spirit was meant to provide a platform for heroic performances. The performance of these actors has betrayed the unwritten aspirations of the supreme law of the land.

When a senior minister of the state government came under a cloud for the involvement of his son in a land compensation racket, the leader of the government decided to leave it to the courts to decide the matter. Bizarrely, some rebel members of the ruling party experienced belated pangs of their conscience and decided to convey their angst to the governor. It may have just been a coincidence that there had already been grave rumblings after a recent unpalatable cabinet reshuffle, and that a senior leader of the opposition was intervening as a well-wisher of the 'downtrodden'. Before one could say 'Jai Karnataka', the rebels were shunted from resort to resort, from state to state, perhaps to protect them from their own conscience.

Curiously, even members of a large opposition party were reported to have been 'sheltered' at a getaway. Did they need protection from a sin about which the Lord's Prayer states: 'Lead us not into temptation'? While the floor-test was awaited, the governor had already written to the speaker to maintain the “character and configuration of the house”. My reading of the Constitution tells me that the governor was always meant to be a dispassionate patriarch. That may be wishful thinking.

While honourable members were sought to be traded like scrips on a stock exchange, the gods were also summoned by the chief minister to guide him in his yeoman efforts. And just in case you forgot the other lead character, the speaker, you forgot at your own peril. The speaker chose to disqualify the members for quitting their party by a novel interpretation of the 10th schedule, when the same members were the recipient of a party whip to vote in its favour. Extraordinarily, even independent members were subjected to such an interpretation! Just like the governor, the speaker was also supposed to be non-partisan, but...

So, while Bangalore continues to be pounded by a growing real-estate mafia, the state police were, instead, utilised to physically eject members from the Vidhana Soudha. A three-minute voice-vote in lieu of a ballot followed and became the basis to determine the 'confidence' in the ruling party.

Pray, why do I not feel so confident about my state? Maybe it's because I still believe, naively, in outdated concepts such as constitutional morality.

Ironically, as the disqualified members move the high court, the governor has returned to the scene and promptly recommended imposition of President's Rule. The Union cabinet, another lead member of the plot, now gets a chance to perform on this unhealthy stage. At this point, one has reached the stage in the film where no one really cares if the characters survive or not. Propriety, however, demands that the court be permitted to decide on the validity of the disqualification rather than any vindictive application of Article 356 to oust the government of the day.

Alas, this screenplay has altogether omitted the role of one protagonist. In this convoluted plot, the heroes as per the script that is the Constitution — the people — seem to have been left incommunicado.

Aditya Sondhi is an advocate practising in the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court. The views expressed by the author are personal.