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High drama as Karnataka gets new chief minister

Supreme Court convenes rare session at 2am but rejects last-minute bid to block swearing-in

By Michael Safi, The Guardian

New Delhi: The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s party snatched a fragile and controversial victory in a state election outside its political heartland, boosting momentum for the Hindu nationalist leader a year before national polls.

Amid high political drama, the Indian Supreme Court convened a rare session at 2am yesterday but rejected a last-minute bid to block the Bharatiya Janata Party’s BS Yeddyurappa from taking oath as Karnataka’s new chief minister.

The BJP had argued that it should get the first chance to form a government in Karnataka as it is the largest party with 104 seats. State governor Vajubhai Vala gave the right-wing party 15 days to prove it has a majority, prompting an opposition coalition of Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) to challenge the decision in supreme court. A bench comprising Justices AK Sikri, SA Bobde and Ashok Bhushan adjourned more than three hours later without a decision. “In case [Yeddyurappa] is given oath in the meantime, that shall be subject to further orders of this court and final outcome of the writ petition,” it said.

During the hearing, senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the Congress, argued that the governor must have invited the post-poll coalition to form government as no single party secured majority. He questioned the 15-day time given to Yeddyurappa for proving majority, saying the Supreme Court had earlier said that “to give such time is to encourage the constitutional sin of poaching”. In his argument that ran for more than an hour, Singhvi also cited instances of Meghalaya, Manipur, Goa, Delhi, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir as precedents of post-poll alliances being invited to form governments.

Indian attorney-general KK Venugopal argued that everything was in the realm of “speculation” as the entire matter was still “a grey area”.

Justice Sikri asked him on what basis was the BJP claiming majority in the House: “It is not a fluid situation. In view of this arithmetic, on what basis you claim majority.” Venugopal said it was the Governor’s decision. The court also observed that it was “preposterous” to argue that before state lawmakers take oath they were not amenable to anti-defection law. “It means open invitation to horse-trading. It is preposterous [to argue] that before an elected MLA takes oath as member all this [floor crossing] is allowed,” Justice Sikri told the Attorney General.

The bench could still overturn the BJP’s win and allow other parties to try to form government.

Yeddyruppa took oath as planned at 9am yesterday, but today [Friday] he will have to produce the two letters he had written to the governor to stake claim for government formation. The BJP leader is said to have claimed a majority support in the letters.

Though the final result is still uncertain, analysts said the surge in support for the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in Karnataka state showed that the party’s national appeal was still growing while its strongest foe, the Congress party, continued to decline.

The BJP’s emphasis on economic development fused with appeals to Hindu nationalism has won it several states across western and northern India but has had less appeal in the south.

Polling had shown the BJP and Congress were evenly matched until Modi entered the campaign fray, holding 21 rallies in the final weeks.

Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and vice-chancellor at Jain University, said the narrow win was a testament to the BJP’s superior election machine, but also confirmed Modi’s status as the most popular Indian politician in generations. “Through [Modi], the BJP has re-entered their southern bastion,” he said. “It’s a critical result because this is the only southern state where they can potentially come to power on their own, without joining with larger regional parties.”

Shastri said the result also cast the Congress party deeper into electoral decline. Though it helped found independent India and has ruled the country for much of the past 70 years, the party has now failed to retain a single state since Modi was elected. “They have suffered a huge setback,” Shastri said.

Elections for the federal lower house of parliament are expected to be held before May 2019.

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