The Supreme Court on Wednesday disqualified 13 Uttar Pradesh MLAs who had broken away from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to form, along with 24 other BSP MLAs, the Loktantrik Bahujan Dal (LBD), which extended support to the Samajwadi Party (SP) to enable Mulayam Singh Yadav to form the government in August 2003.
Though the court passed no judgment on the other 24 MLAs, the ruling effectively means that they too stand disqualified. This is because their number does not add up to a third of 109 — the strength of the BSP in the house on the eve of the split. Any breakaway group must have at least one-third the numbers of the original to not attract the provisions of the anti-defection law.
However, even if all 37 MLAs are disqualified, Mulayam’s government is not in danger of falling immediately. This is because the effective strength of the 402-member house has become 365 after the disqualifications, and Mulayam, who enjoys the support of 186 MLAs, still has majority.
“I can prove my majority on the floor of the house, if the opposition wants,” the chief minister said on Wednesday. The house is scheduled to meet on February 26. In a vote of confidence taken on January 25 after Ajit Singh’s 15-member Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) withdrew support, Mulayam had got a comfortable 223 votes.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan held that the meeting of the 13 MLAs of the breakaway BSP group with the UP governor on August 27, 2003 in support of the SP, amounted to defection as defined under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution.
The bench agreed with the majority verdict delivered by Justice Jagdish Bhalla and Justice Pradeep Kant of the Allahabad High Court, which had quashed the UP Speaker’s decision to recognise the split.
The court concluded: “It is necessary not only to show that 37 MLAs had separated but it is also necessary to show that there was a split in the original political party... The 13 MLAs, therefore, stand disqualified with effect from 27.8.2003.”
Irrespective of the absence of immediate danger to the UP government, the verdict is significant because it has hit at precisely the support on the basis of which Mulayam came to power in 2003. The BSP had challenged the formation of the LBD and its merger with the SP, and sought action against all its MLAs who had defected in three phases. Speaker Kesrinath Tripathi had recognised the split and allowed the merger.
The BSP moved the High Court, which ruled against the merger and asked the speaker to take up the BSP's petition again. Five MLAs then tried to return to the BSP, but were disqualified by the Speaker on the SP's demand. But they subsequently got relief from the Supreme Court.
Though Mulayam's government still enjoys a majority in the house, the verdict has come as a political setback for him ahead of the crucial assembly elections.
BSP chief Mayawati said that the judgment vindicated her party's position. "The governor should look into the policy decisions taken by the government that was formed illegally," she told Hindustan Times from Nainital over the phone.
According to the Supreme Court, the very act of giving a letter to the governor requesting him to call the leader of the opposition to form a government by the 13 MLAs amounted to their voluntarily giving up the membership of BSP within the meaning of paragraph 2 of the Tenth Schedule.
The court took note of the fact that the term of the assembly was due to expire in a few months, and delaying the matter further would make the issue infructuous.
"Considering that if the 13 members are found to be disqualified, their continuance in the assembly even for a day would be illegal and unconstitutional and their holding office as ministers would also be illegal at least after the expiry of six months from the date of their taking charge of the offices of ministers, it observed.
The court said "we think that as a Court bound to protect the constitution and its values and the principles of democracy which is a basic feature of the constitution, this court has to take a decision one way or the other on the question of disqualification of the 13 MLAs based on their action on 27.8.2003 and on the materials available."