A judgement without a verdict

Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK government of Edappadi Palaniswami got a reprieve last week with a split verdict from the Madras High Court on the disqualification of 18 legislators of the party. Speaker P Dhanapal had disqualified18 legislators in September 2017 after they informed the governor that they had withdrawn support to the Palaniswami government. The MLAs challenged the Speaker’s decision in the high court but the court’s split verdict has not resolved the issue. It has allowed the status quo to continue, to the advantage of the government. Of the two judges on the bench, Chief Justice Indira Banerjee upheld the Speaker’s disqualification order on the ground that the court cannot examine the Speaker’s decision-making process. But the other judge, Justice M Sundar, struck down the order, terming it as perverse, mala fide and violative of natural justice and constitutional provisions. The case will now go to a third judge who must break the judicial tie. 

The Palaniswami government would have been in trouble if the court had taken a decision either way. If the disqualification order had been struck down unanimously, the government might have lost its majority in the 232-member House, where it only has 116 MLAs, one short of majority. It had survived because the disqualification reduced the effective strength of the House to 214, where it commanded a majority with 116 MLAs. If the disqualification had been upheld, it would have resulted in by-elections in18 constituencies, which the AIADMK was widely expected to lose. Either way, the government would have fallen, sooner or later. It can sit pretty now because the court has stayed a floor test and told the Election Commission not to conduct by-elections in the 18 seats. 

It is unfortunate that court judgements on disqualification of legislators have created confusion rather than clarity. In April, the Madras high court had dismissed a petition seeking disqualification of Deputy Chief Minister O Pannerselvam and 10 other MLAs who voted against the Palaniswami government in February 2017, on the ground that a petition on the court’s power to issue directions to the Speaker was pending before the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the 18 MLAs who were disqualified had only told the governor that they did not support the government, but they had not voted against it. The judgement on their disqualification, however, suits the present government, though it is perceived to be a minority government lacking legitimacy. There is also the impression that it is propped up by the central government. The third judge should be nominated soon and a decision taken in the matter at the earliest in the interest of justice and democratic principles.

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A judgement without a verdict

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