Karnataka's ruling Congress-Janata Dal Secular coalition, in serious danger of losing power after multiple resignations, may see today's Supreme Court verdict as a setback a day before a trust vote it faces. The court said the Speaker was "free to decide" on the status of the 16 rebel lawmakers whose resignations have jolted the coalition government, but at the same time, ruled that the rebels cannot be compelled to attend the assembly session.
Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy's JDS and the Congress cannot then force the dissident lawmakers to follow their whip and participate in the vote.
"The discretion of the Speaker should not be fettered by any direction from the court. The Speaker can decide on the resignations as and when he feels appropriate," the Supreme Court said in a decision that it said aimed at "constitutional balance".
Besides the 16 legislators of the JDS-Congress coalition who have resigned over the past two weeks, two independent lawmakers have quit as ministers and pledged their support to rival BJP.
Fifteen of the rebels declared they would skip the vote at the Vidhana Soudha or state assembly in Bengaluru. It was a BJP leader who said the group, which flew to Mumbai after resigning on July 6, would stay put in the city during the trust vote.
If the rebels skip the trust vote, the majority mark in the 224-member house will drop to 105. The coalition's 118 will come down to 100. With the support of two independents, the BJP will have 107 members, just past the majority mark.
The numbers will be the same if the resignations are accepted.
If the lawmakers are disqualified, they must be re-elected and can't become ministers. A resignation allows lawmakers to become ministers easily if the BJP comes to power. They will have six months to seek re-election.
"HD Kumaraswamy has lost his mandate. He must quit tomorrow," said former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa of the BJP, calling the Supreme Court ruling a moral victory for the rebels.
In May last year, Mr Yeddyurappa quit 48 hours after he was sworn in as chief minister, and walked out just before his test of strength as it became clear that the numbers didn't favour him. The Congress and JDS then tied up to keep the BJP out of power.
There is speculation about whether Mr Kumaraswamy will brave the vote or plans to do the same tomorrow.
DK Shivakumar, the Congress's chief troubleshooter in Karnataka, put out a fervent appeal to the dissidents. "There is still time. We are confident good sense will prevail on my friends. They are valuable. They've been (lawmakers) five-six times," he said.
The Chief Minister, who prayed at the Sri Sringeri Shankara Mutt in Shankarapuram this morning, refused to comment.
Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar said he would act according to the constitution. "The Supreme Court has put extra burden on me, I will conduct myself responsibly in accordance with constitutional principles," he told reporters.
The Speaker had told the court that many of the dissidents faced disqualification and he needed time to examine their resignation letters. He had also said he had to determine whether the resignations were coerced.
Stating that no one had held a gun to their head, the rebels had retorted in court, "This government is in a minority and that's simple math."