Just a day before Maharashtra's biggest annual festival Ganesh Chaturthi, the Supreme Court on Monday told the Maharashtra Assembly Speaker to expedite the process of holding a hearing about the plea over disqualification of MLAs and give a decision about the 16 MLAs after they split from Uddhav Thackeray's Shiv Sena in 2022. The Supreme Court observed that the Speaker of the Assembly seems to have done nothing in the past four months after the court had decided in May 2023 that the matter should be settled in the Assembly (by the Speaker) in reasonable time. This rap by the Supreme Court comes as a jolt to the Eknath Shinde group of MLAs and is set to spark a new drama in Maharashtra's politics after the Ganesh Chaturthi festival is over.
Maharashtra witnessed dramatic political twists and turns mid-year in 2022 when Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde suddenly broke away from party chief Uddhav Thackeray and went away initially to Surat and then to Guwahati with a group of MLAs who said they did not have faith in Thackeray's leadership any more. Although the total number of MLAs in the breakaway group added up to become 40 which was the requisite number to avoid action under the anti-defection law, the original number that went with Shinde before Thackeray's Shiv Sena issued a whip, was only 16. Thackeray group went to court with the plea to disqualify these 16 members from the assembly under the anti-defection law. In May 2023 the court said the decision on disqualification should be taken and announced by the Speaker of the Assembly in reasonable time and if that happens the court would not interfere in the matter.
It is very clear that the strategy of the Shinde group as well as BJP has been to delay the matter as much as possible, so that the MLAs can continue as qualified members of the house and Shinde can continue as chief minister. The crucial part in this is that Shinde himself is among the 16 MLAs that the Thackeray group wants disqualified. If Shinde gets disqualified under the anti -defection act, he will have to resign as chief minister, which means the government will fall. In such a case there will have to be fresh Assembly elections announced in Maharashtra, or President’s rule will have to be brought in. The BJP is very conscious to ensure that it remains in power in Maharashtra when the next Lok Sabha polls happen because after Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra has the largest number of Lok Sabha seats. So the party will try to avoid Presidential rule and continue in power with a new chief ministerial face – most probably Devendra Fadnavis.
The Supreme Court's rap to the Maharashtra Speaker has given a new ray of hope to the Opposition in Maharashtra and they are now eager to watch how the Speaker proceeds with the hearings on the matter. SC has indicated that the Speaker should expedite the matter and in that there seems to be a signal that the Opposition can appeal in the matter in case they feel the Speaker has not done the correct thing in his decision on disqualification.
Many insiders feel that the BJP had some idea that the issue of disqualification of MLAs was going to proceed in this direction and that's the reason the party designed a division in Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. This division resulted in Ajit Pawar and over 30 of his MLAs coming on BJP's side which now means, even if 16 MLAs of Eknath Shinde group get disqualified from the assembly, the BJP has enough numbers in the House to continue in power. So 106 MLAs of the BJP, little over 30 MLAs of Ajit Pawar's NCP (their exact number is not known right now) and about 10 independent MLAs who are supporting the BJP, takes the total number ahead of 145 which is the required majority in Maharashtra assembly which has 288 members. So if the Speaker of Assembly under pressure from the court has to announce that 16 MLAs including Eknath Shinde are disqualified from the House under anti-defection law, the BJP may quickly ask Shinde to resign and with support of 145 MLAs may swear-in a new Chief Minister.
Now the big question is, if the BJP has decided to change the CM, who will be the face? A few weeks ago speculation was rife that with Ajit Pawar’s entry into the government, the BJP had promised him that he would be made chief minister at some stage. Supporters of Ajit Pawar got excited with the prospect that perhaps he was a probable candidate for the CM's position and huge posters were put up in places like Pune and Baramati that projected Ajit Pawar as the future chief minister. However insiders within the BJP say that with over 100 MLAs of their own, this time the BJP will not give away the chief minister's position to another party and they would prefer Fadnavis to take over in case Shinde and 15 others have to face disqualification. As things stand there is considerable unease among the BJP MLAs in Maharashtra over not getting enough representation in the state cabinet. Sensing this feeling Devendra Fadnavis delivered a speech before them a few weeks ago at a private gathering where he said the MLAs should be ready for sacrifice in the short term to ensure the BJP has alliance partners with them and secures maximum seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
The important part in all this is that whatever happens in the next few weeks in Maharashtra, over disqualification of the MLAs and the SC acting on that subject later, is going to set a precedent for all other Assemblies in the country as well as for Parliament. This gives rise to some new questions, will the BJP initiate some kind of brainstorming in its top think tank over this issue? Will the Speakers of several Assemblies and Councils in various states, who occasionally meet at their own conferences, initiate some communication about how to handle this matter? Questions are up in the air and we don't know the answers, but one thing is certain. This new twist is going to create dramatic action in Maharashtra's politics once again as soon as the Ganesh Chaturthi festival concludes!
Rohit Chandavarkar is a senior journalist who has worked for 31 years with various leading newspaper brands and television channels in Mumbai and Pune