High Court gives rebel Congress MLAs 4-day breather
Sachin Pilot and 18 other rebel Congress MLAs got a four-day breather as the Rajasthan high court on Friday directed that no action be taken against them until Tuesday, while deferring the hearing of their plea challenging the state assembly speaker’s disqualification notices.
The speaker assured the court that he would not act till 5.30pm on Tuesday on the notices issued to dissident legislators over their failure to attend two Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meetings. The bench of chief justice Indrajit Mahanty and justice Prakash Gupta also asked Congress chief whip Mahesh Joshi, who had filed a complaint before the speaker, to respond to the dissidents’ petition by Saturday.
Senior lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing the speaker, will resume his arguments at 10am on Monday. Senior counsel Harish Salve and Mukul Rohtagi, representing Pilot and others, completed their side of arguments.
“Propriety demands that when the matter is in court action should not be taken. We have assured the court that the speaker will not take any action till the matter is being heard by the division bench,” said Prateek Kasliwal, counsel for the speaker. “The speaker will not take any action till Tuesday as it would not be justified as the issue sub-judice.”
The MLAs, who moved the court challenging the notice issued to them by assembly speaker CP Joshi on July 14 seeking an explanation on why they should not be disqualified from the assembly, told the court that ruling party legislators disagreeing with the manner of functioning of the chief minister cannot be construed as indicating their intention to leave the party so as to trigger the anti-defection law.
Criticising the party leadership is an exercise of freedom of speech and cannot be a ground to disqualify a lawmaker on the grounds of defection, Salve added in his submission.
“Raising disagreements is an exercise of freedom of speech and will not amount to defection,” he said.
The petitioners through their counsel, Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi, contended that a party whip applies only when the assembly is in session and that airing of grievances against party leadership cannot be construed as voluntarily giving up party membership under 2 (1) (a) of the Tenth schedule of the Constitution.
The petition challenged the speaker’s notice, which was based on a complaint by Mahesh Joshi, that the MLAs should be disqualified from the Rajasthan assembly for defying the whip.
In his complaint to the speaker, Mahesh Joshi sought action against Pilot and the other dissidents under Clause 2 (1) (a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. This clause provides for disqualification of MLAs if they “voluntarily” give up the membership of the party which they represent in the House.
Mahesh Joshi cited the absence of the dissident MLAs in two Congress legislature party meetings of July 13 and 14 despite specific direction to attend the same along with hostile and prejudicial conduct against the Congress party, as indication of the dissidents’ intention to leave the party.
But the dissident camp said Pilot had never indicated any intention to leave the Congress party.
A party whip’s directions with respect to acts outside the house will not trigger anti-defection law envisaged in the tenth schedule of the Constitution, Salve submitted.
“Party whip is not applicable when it comes to meetings at homes and hotels, it applies only to proceedings within the assembly”, he argued.
He also submitted that though Pilot and other dissident MLAs had raised their voice against the manner in which chief minister Ashok Gehlot was functioning, the same cannot be construed as defection.
Singhvi questioned the maintainability of the plea stating that it is a settled position of law that courts cannot interfere with the disqualification proceedings under tenth schedule until the speaker gives a decision. A challenge in court to a speaker’s notice to show cause, is premature, he said.
The dissidents have stated in their petition that speaker’s notice is an attempt to stifle the voice of the petitioners who are seeking a leadership change within the party in a democratic way. They alleged any grievances regarding the functioning of the government were not tolerated by the chief minister Gehlot.
The claimed that the chief minister called a legislature party meeting on July 13 without providing any specific agenda and levelled certain baseless allegations against them. Subsequently, they were issued notices by the chief whip for not attending the meeting, said the petition.
“The undue haste and swiftness exhibited by the authority (speaker) concerned in taking cognisance of the said complaint (by the party whip) leaves no doubt in the minds of the petitioners that the move is aimed at arriving at a foregone conclusion leading to the disqualification of the petitioners,” it added
Both Congress and BJP spokespersons declined to comment on court’s proceedings saying the matter was sub-judice.
Political analyst Narayan Bareth said the court’s order was is a temporary relief. “The day’s development will not come as a shock to the government but to the dissidents as they had gone to the court with hope of getting relief,” he said.