The Madhya Pradesh assembly is balanced on the razor’s edge — reportedly, the ruling Congress has 108 MLAs against the BJP’s 107, both short of the effective majority mark of 112, following the disqualification of six defectors whose resignations have been accepted by Speaker N P Prajapati. However, despite MLAs of both sides showing up for the floor test on Monday, he adjourned the House until March 26 without conducting it, citing concern over the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the validity of the government will remain in question for 10 days, a very long time in politics. And the allegiance of the speaker to constitutional democracy, rather than to his party, will remain in question. The MP tableau offers a striking contrast to the conduct of former Lok Sabha speaker, the late Somnath Chatterjee, one of the finest parliamentarians, who was expelled by the CPI-M for maintaining his allegiance to the Constitution during a crucial vote in the Lok Sabha.
Across states that vary in size and perceived importance, from Maharashtra to Manipur, assembly speakers have, through their conduct, invited accusations of partisan behaviour. Hearing the case concerning Manipur Congress MLA T Shyam Kumar, who switched to the BJP after it formed a government in 2017 and received a portfolio, the Supreme Court ruled in January that rigorous application of the anti-defection law under the 10th Schedule of the Constitution is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy democracy. The speaker is the guardian of the 10th Schedule, but to address accusations of partisan behaviour seen in that office, the court had recommended the establishment of a permanent tribunal under the Constitution, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge or a former chief justice of a high court, to decide defection cases expeditiously.
It may be argued that Speaker Prajapati has not crossed the line on this count, for the court had set an outer limit of three months to decide cases. However, he can be seen to fall foul of another landmark judgement of the Supreme Court: SR Bommai vs Union of India. That matter had concerned the misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution to impose President’s Rule, but the court’s first observation is of relevance here: A majority is to be established by a floor test. It was intended to circumscribe the discretionary powers of the speaker, which can be seen at play, all over again, in Madhya Pradesh. The primacy of the floor test highlights its urgency, and delay must inevitably invite controversy and questions.