Context: The Supreme Court  gave the Madhya Pradesh  government time till March 18 to respond to a petition seeking a vote of confidence to be held on the floor of the Legislative Assembly against the Congress ruling dispensation in the State.

Need for a quick response:

  • Any deferment of the floor test will further encourage horse-trading and would be in utter violation of the directions issued by the Governor(to conduct floor test) and the law laid down by this court and the spirit and basic structure of the Constitution.
  • If the government does not enjoy a majority it has no moral, legal, democratic or constitutional right to remain in power even for a single day.

Office of Speaker in question:

Citing concern over the coronavirus pandemic, the Speaker in Madhya Pradesh has adjourned the House until March 26 without conducting it, despite MLAs of both sides showing up for the floor test. Implications of this move

  • The validity of the government will remain in question for 10 days. 
  • The allegiance of the speaker to constitutional democracy, rather than to his party, will remain in question. 
  • Across states, from Maharashtra to Manipur, assembly speakers through their conduct have invited accusations of partisan behaviour. 

Tussle between Governor and Speaker:

Since 2014, the legal-political tussle between the Governor and Speaker has prompted the Supreme Court’s intervention in three major instances -

  • In the Arunachal and Uttarakhand cases
    • The House was in suspended animation as President’s Rule had been imposed. The Supreme Court ordered that the House be summoned and a floor test held to end the impasse.
  • In the case of Karnataka:
    •  The Supreme Court had directed the Speaker to conduct the floor test forthwith when the House was in session. 

In all three cases, the court emphasised the primacy of the floor test.

  • However, when the House is in session, the question of whether the court can direct the Speaker to hold a floor test is yet to be settled. 
  • This question was referred to a larger bench in 2016, which is yet to be constituted. Article 212 of the Constitution bars courts from inquiring into proceedings of the Legislature.
  • In 1998, in the Jagadambika Pal case, the SC had ordered a composite floor test when the House was in session when there were two claimants to the chief minister’s post.
  • Role of governor: If the House is adjourned sine die or prorogued without holding a floor test, then all options are open before the Governor. 
    • Earlier, the Sarkaria Commission had recommended that, if the CM neglects or refuses to summon the Assembly for a floor test, the Governor should summon the Assembly.

Other rulings of SC

  • In the Manipur case: The Supreme Court hearing the case concerning Manipur Congress MLA, who switched to the BJP after it formed a government in 2017 and received a portfolio, ruled
    • 10th Schedule crucial for a healthy democracy: Rigorous application of the anti-defection law under the 10th Schedule of the Constitution is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy democracy. The court had set an outer limit of three months to decide cases. 
    • Establishment of a permanent tribunal: The speaker is the guardian of the 10th Schedule, but to address accusations of partisan behaviour, the court had recommended the establishment of a permanent tribunal. The tribunal headed by a retired Supreme Court judge or a former chief justice of a high court will decide defection cases expeditiously.
  • SR Bommai vs Union of India: 
    • In another landmark judgement, the Supreme Court held that the 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, in Madhya Pradesh once again. 

Way ahead

  • The primacy of the floor test highlights its urgency, and delay must inevitably invite controversy and questions.
  • While the judiciary will force some solution to end the current impasse, the larger question facing democracy is that of trust and transparency.  When the top court adjudicates on the Madhya Pradesh petitions, this larger point must be taken into consideration
  • The situation demands new guidelines by the Court to deal with the now-familiar malaise, beyond setting a reasonably quick deadline for a floor test.