Hats off to Supreme Court bench, Karnataka turnaround was enthusing, says Singhvi
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Hats off to Supreme Court bench, Karnataka turnaround was enthusing, says Singhvi

Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi discusses the top court’s decision to advance the floor test in Karnataka and outlines his views on Opposition unity to take on the BJP in 2019 elections.

Karnataka Elections 2018 Updated: May 21, 2018 08:34 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Abhishek Manu Singhvi,Supreme Court,BS Yeddyurappa
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi during a press conference at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi on May 19, 2018.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)

Congress leader, senior advocate and Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi has been at the centre of the legal challenge that eventually led to an early trust vote in Karnataka and precipitated the resignation of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister BS Yeddyurappa on Saturday. In an exclusive chat with Saubhadra Chatterji, Singhvi spoke about the midnight hearing, the precedent it sets, and the disagreement between the government and the Supreme Court over the appointment of judges. Edited excerpts:

What were your first thoughts after BS Yeddyurappa resigned as chief minister?

It was very enthusing and reinvigorating personally. But more than that, I could sense a feeling of positivity and esprit de corps. We were able to give the opponent a run for their money the moment the Supreme Court, against all odds, called us for a night hearing. I am not talking of results or consequences, but the mere act of first evaluating the urgency of our petition and then holding the hearing changed the entire spirit and ambiance both in Karnataka and here.

It has put paid to all possible attempts of over-adventurist political acrobatics which had become a norm. It sent a clear signal that this is no big-brother watching -- this is no less than the Supreme Court watching everything. It had a very sobering effect.

And at the end of the day, transcending our success, it is the Supreme Court that vindicates its existence every time. The institutional vindication is very high. Here is an institution that moves and works when others might be sleepy. In fact, I joked when the direction was given that the judges said: “We now direct you not to disturb us on Sunday”. Everyone laughed heartily.

Did you really think the SC would call you at midnight for the hearing?

I was in Chandigarh on a prior commitment. We had a telephonic chat about anticipatory planning. Unfortunately, to uphold the highest principles inside a court, there have to be long, boring periods of collecting documents and paperwork. Luckily, I was able to exit Chandigarh by going to Pinjor airport to catch a flight for Delhi. I had a great team of young lawyers and most of them have worked with me in Uttarakhand case.

What was the mood like?

We were on tenterhooks till 12.30am to 1am but when the Registrar followed it up with the Chief Justice of India (CJI), I realised the urgency has been appreciated. I added that the people who gave the opportunity are from the Bharatiya Janata Party itself! Because the governor issued a letter to Yeddyurappa at 10pm and after 30 seconds, he announced the timing of his swearing-in function. If you take these facts to the SC, then the only time to intervene is between 10.30 at night and 9.30 the next morning.

Hats off to the institution and the CJI, and hats off to the bench. The judges literally dragged out of their beds and patiently heard our arguments. I would like the legal principles to be decided in the fullness of time.

Do you think the ramifications of what happened in court will be seen for a long time?

This is the first time directly, with such specificity, that we have challenged the right of the governor to call or not call A or B. The floor test was a House issue. The court was good enough to say, ‘no, keep the main matter for a future decision’. The real decision will come after many weeks and when it comes, it will be the guidance for the future.

The court has frequently, in many cases, identified problems but not solved those problems. Like, whether or not Sarkaria Commission (report) should be adopted - and if you adopt, to what degree? Many judgments have quoted Sarkaria Commission, but not asked to adopt the report.

It should be black-and-white. Once you adopt the Sarkaria Commission, there will be a degree of specificity. According to it, you have to decide who should be called to form government -- A or B?. And if you call A, decide what time it should be given—one day, two days or three days.

Here again, reality has to overtake certain rules. The Sarkaria Commission was perhaps correct in those old, slower and possibly more moral days.

Then, a 30-day period would be fine but now even 30 hours is perhaps too long. This will save a lot of future litigation. The governor has discretion but despite the immunity he enjoys for his personal acts, the court can still direct him. These are the real issues I am looking forward to.

Do you think the SC’s direction to hold the floor test on Saturday possibly changed the game in Karnataka?

It definitely changed the game. The bench married harmoniously both principals and pragmatism. We also, rightly accepted the offer.

The bench asked me specifically whether I would like to discuss the whole matter in 3-4 days or you can cut it short and let there be a trust vote tomorrow morning. I agreed. Otherwise, where would it have led us? We were sure of the numbers but we were equally sure the BJP would have taken away some of our MLAs. I told the court that it is unheard of that a governor gives 15 days in such a context. The court initially gave time till 11am on Saturday to conduct the trust vote.

It was only after a lot of requests and realisation that it takes four hours to swear in the new members, the deadline was shifted to 4pm.

There is no fixed rule for the governor on this.

This is exactly one of the five specificities I demand the court to tell us. No judgment, neither (SR) Bommai nor Rameshwar, is specific on this issue. (It is a reference the Supreme Court judgement in the Rameshwar Prasad And Others vs Union of India case in 2006 holding the dissolution of the Bihar Assembly to be illegal and unconstitutional; the SR Bommai vs Union of India verdict in 1994 laid down the conditions under which state governments may be dismissed). The Sarkaria Commission deals with these things clearly.

It lays down that first the party with a majority should be called and then a pre-poll alliance. Otherwise, the single-largest party. It is understood that the single largest party, which doesn’t have majority on its own, will take the help of other parties to form government.

If you apply para 2 of Sarkaria in our case, is that the BJP, with A and B, will form government. But in the letter, Yeddyurappa simply said I am the leader of the BJP legislative party and in the last sentence he says, I will make the government with other parties.

He didn’t specify the numbers or names of MLAs of those parties. He didn’t attach signatures of those MLAs with his letter. The governor is not a zombie.

He has to apply his mind. He can’t apply mind to a letter that only says give me time to form a government.

This means that in these 15 days, he will buy MLAs. I said in the court, that the CM is not relying on Lady Luck, he’s relying on ‘Lady M’ — whereas in the Congress and JD(S) letters, all details are there.

You and P Chidambaram mentioned the SC verdict on Goa assembly several times. But then you demanded the biggest party should be called first. In Karnataka, you didn’t want the largest party be invited first by the governor. Isn’t there an inconsistency in these arguments?

This is the harmony of law. This is the perfect example of what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This shows what is right for the BJP can’t be wrong for the Congress.

I argued the Goa case as well. In Goa, the same legal principles applied in the reverse order. In Goa, the Congress, exactly like Yeddyurappa, couldn’t assert the exact numbers and with and how it would form the government. The court observed that in such circumstances, the governor was not obliged to call the single-largest party. We wanted the Goa principle to be applied on these grounds that the single-largest party should not be called.

You mentioned how the CJI constituted the bench for hearing the Karnataka case. But a couple of weeks ago, the Congress tried to remove CJI. Was it a misadventure?

Parties don’t file impeachment motions, individuals do. The Constitution permits invocation of a constitutional right. If we can get 51 members, irrespective of party lines, we can file the notice.

The exercise of a constitutional right by a group of MPs, and I fully admit that most of them were Congress MPs, is in no way related to what individuals or parties can do after the notice was rejected.

Look at the ridiculous consequences if it had been otherwise. For six to eight months, the Congress party would have been remedy-less because CJI is sitting till October. I must add a personal note. I had given reasons on why we should not move an impeachment motion. It was perhaps for my arguments, nothing moved for two months. Subsequently, I was physically the last person to sign the petition. I also didn’t appear in that case. My conscience is clear.

But some of your party colleagues challenged the Rajya Sabha chairman’s decision in Supreme Court.

I do not doubt the sincerity of people who challenged it. But equally, I personally I think it could have been avoided. I have my own view point.

What is your take on the government not accepting collegium’s recommendation to elevate Justice KM Joseph to the SC?

It is the saddest moment in my years in Supreme Court. It is brazen entry of the executive’s naked politics. It is also obligatory for the collegium to recommend once again Justice Joseph’s name to the government. It should be done instantaneously.

The government managers say he is 42nd in seniority.

Did they tell you he is the senior-most Chief Justice? They talk about representation of SCs and STs in the Supreme Court. If that’s the criteria, how did you appoint the last three-four people? Justice Indu Malhotra is an outstanding judge, but is she SC/ST?

The Congress and the Trinamool Congress nominated you for your current term. You fought a case that involved Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) coming together.

I have no hesitation to declare that in 2019 the nation demands every non-BJP, non-NDA (National Democratic Alliance) party to try for maximum unity. The BJP gains maximum where non-BJP votes gets divided. It just happened in Karnataka.

First Published: May 21, 2018 08:34 IST