Will Maharashtra speaker’s ruling lead BJP to engineer defections in Bihar, Bengal?

Maharashtra assembly speaker Rahul Narwekar’s Wednesday ruling would appear to have effectively buried the anti-defection law, unless the Supreme Court intervenes

Maharashtra speaker Rahul Narvekar ruled in favour of the Eknath Shinde (left) faction as the official Shiv Sena, rejecting submissions from the Uddhav Thackeray faction (photo: National Herald archives)
Maharashtra speaker Rahul Narvekar ruled in favour of the Eknath Shinde (left) faction as the official Shiv Sena, rejecting submissions from the Uddhav Thackeray faction (photo: National Herald archives)

A.J. Prabal

It was curious to hear the speaker of the Maharashtra assembly read out in English his 10 January ruling on the disqualification petitions filed by rival factions of the Shiv Sena. Proceedings in the Maharashtra assembly, one assumes, are carried out in Marathi. Why would the speaker revert to English?

It is possible, as has been insinuated by several commentators, that it was a command performance, that Narwekar was merely reading out the ruling which had been handed to him. This in turn triggered some speculation about the author of the ruling, with the name of a lawyer who is also a former BJP MP, figuring prominently as the likely ‘culprit’.

‘Culprit’, because the perverse ruling has all but buried the Anti-Defection Act and has practically opened the floodgates for similar political adventurism or ‘experiments’ in other opposition-ruled states like Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

After the Supreme Court’s Article 370 judgment made it ‘Constitutionally permissible’ for the Union government to turn a state into a Union territory or bifurcate the state if it enjoys a brute majority in the Lok Sabha, this Maharashtra ruling is the next turn of the knife.

The Supreme Court in May last year had unequivocally held that the political party had primacy over the legislative wing. MLA and MP candidates were fielded by political parties in elections, the court had pointed out. It was, therefore, the prerogative of the political party to appoint the chief whip and issue whips seeking compliance from the members of the legislative wing.

By ruling, however, that after their election, legislators are free to defect or form a political party, Narwekar has effectively buried the 10th schedule of the Indian Constitution. A section of the ruling party legislators in opposition-ruled states like Bihar and West Bengal can now afford to defect over a period of time, and bide their time until they have the majority to form a government, without fear of disqualification.

The Supreme Court had held that the appointment of a new chief whip by the breakaway Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena was unconstitutional; the chief whip appointed by Shiv Sena, the political party, was the legitimate chief whip, it had ruled. Now, Narwekar has not only overruled the Supreme Court and rewritten the Constitution, but he believes that if any Shiv Sena member defies the chief whip legitimised by him, they would themselves be liable for disqualification. A neat trick that can be replicated elsewhere.

In a signed edit-page comment in the Indian Express, Loksatta editor Girish Kuber points out why Narwekar’s ruling is both Constitutionally and morally wrong. Defection, he points out, is a one-time act and not an ongoing process. It was wrong for speaker Narwekar to rule that the breakaway faction was the ‘real’ Shiv Sena because it had the support of the majority of Shiv Sena MLAs when they split.

Kuber also points out that 16 of the 55 Shiv Sena MLAs had left for Surat before flying to Guwahati. The support of 24 other MLAs was secured in the subsequent weeks with support from the BJP. The anti-defection law in any case is designed around the political party. Elected representatives were not expected to develop different ideas and affiliations after they were elected.

This could work in strange ways, though. If the Supreme Court, which will certainly be called upon to adjudicate on the ruling, puts its stamp of approval, MLAs elected on BJP tickets could also then revolt against the party and the party leadership without fear of disqualification.

An editorial in the Hindustan Times finds the speaker’s ruling to have ‘politics’ written all over it, while a Hindu editorial commented that the ruling demonstrates why the adjudicatory function under the anti-defection law should not be in the hands of speakers. Time and again, speakers of different state assemblies have acted to suit the ruling party by delaying decisions, refusing to disqualify defecting MLAs or disqualifying them if it suited the ruling regime.

Not surprisingly, the Hindu concludes by saying, “As long as defection disputes are in the hands of Speakers, and not any independent authority, political considerations will undoubtedly cast a shadow on such rulings.”

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