‘Governor can’t call trust vote over threats, rebellion in party’: SC on Maharashtra political crisis

‘Governor can’t call trust vote over threats, rebellion in party’: SC on Maharashtra political crisis

Trust vote exercise can only be undertaken when majority in House is ‘shaken’, the SC bench observed Wednesday, calling threats to rebel Shiv Sena MLAs ‘a law & order situation’.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde (left) addressing his Dussehra rally at BKC’s MMRDA grounds, in Mumbai (5 October | Credit: ANI Photo) & Uddhav Thackeray at the Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai (5 October | Credit: ANI Photo)

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde (left) and Uddhav Thackeray at their rival Dussehra rallies in October 2022 | ANI

New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday posed probing questions on the Governor’s role in the 2022 Maharashtra political crisis case, while observing that threats to rebel Shiv Sena MLAs could have been grounds to hold police investigation, but not unseat the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government.

A constitution bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud questioned the then state governor — Bhagat Singh Koshyari — for the material that prompted him to call the trust vote in the Assembly.

The court put forth its query when Solicitor General Tushar Mehta defended the governor’s decision to call for the trust vote on the ground that the rebel legislators faced threats.

“You can never allow the Governor to ask for a trust vote when there is absolutely nothing to shake the majority on the floor of the house,” the bench said, adding that members of the legislature party losing confidence in their leader (Uddhav Thackeray) was an internal affair of the party.

A trust vote, the bench remarked, cannot determine who is to be the leader of the House. This exercise can only be undertaken when the majority in the House is “shaken”, it said, wondering if there was anything to indicate if there was such an apprehension.

When Mehta told the bench that the Shiv Sena MLAs had written to the Governor about the alleged threat perception because of which they did not want to continue with the “corrupt government”, the CJI quipped: “It’s a law-and-order situation.”

The Solicitor General also told the court that the apprehension of the MLAs was also fortified by a letter written by then Leader of the Opposition who also provided video links of someone openly threatening them. Mehta urged the court not to condone such an action.

He disagreed with the CJI’s observations on the threat being a “law-and-order problem” and said that it was “created to bring pressure on the legislative process”.

“It is one of the major considerations for the Governor that yes, he (then CM Uddhav Thackeray) seems to have lost the majority, and now open threats are being administered that you (MLAs) come in our fold or you will be sent to post-mortem. It is a threat to death. It cannot be taken lightly,” Mehta argued.

Also read: After symbol loss, Shiv Sena (UBT) leaders tour state to ‘reassure ground cadre’

Arguments in court

The Solicitor General narrated the sequence of events that led the Governor to call for the trust vote. It was only after he received a letter from the Eknath Shinde-led rebel Shiv Sena group on 25 June, affirming him as the leader of the Shiv Sena legislature party, that he called for the trust vote. It was this letter that also spoke about the rebel MLAs facing threats.

But the CJI appeared unconvinced. “The Governor must be equally conscious of the fact that his calling for a trust vote may itself lead to toppling of a government. Governor should not enter into any area which precipitates the fall of a government.”

Mehta remained firm with his contention and said the Governor’s primary role was to ensure that a democratically-elected leader continues to enjoy the confidence of the House.

CJI Chandrachud, however, opined that dissatisfaction within a party is not the same as loss of majority of government.

“One is not necessarily indicative of another. In this situation, what would have led the Governor to come to the conclusion that the government had lost the majority? What was the factual basis for him to conclude (this)? What is the reason for calling a trust vote? Tell us one reason why he has to call for a floor test,” the CJI asked.

MLAs facing threats have their remedy, he said, adding they can vote out the leader because he is not holding the ethos of the party. “But can the Governor say so?” the CJI enquired, cautioning that governors must exercise these powers with the greatest circumspection.

The CJI also observed that the MLAs could have waited for the monsoon session of the state assembly that was to take place soon. Mehta, however, said the court’s way of looking at the crisis was too “simplistic” and that it must look at it “holistically”. A Governor cannot sit as a mute spectator upon receiving complaints of threat, he pointed out.

‘Sad spectacle in our democracy’

The Solicitor General refused to get drawn into any “political debate” when the CJI asked him what happens when people start ditching a government. “The Governors are willing allies saying hold trust votes. This is a very sad spectacle in our democracy,” the CJI said.

He spoke about the Shiv Sena joining hands with the NCP and Congress and then breaking the alliance after three years.

The MVA was formed after the 2019 Maharashtra elections and then comprised a united Shiv Sena along with the NCP and Congress. After the fall of the Thackeray-led government last year, the rebel Shiv Sena faction came to power in Maharashtra with the support of the BJP and with Shinde as CM.

“The Governor has to ask himself this question. What were you fellas doing for three years? If it was one month after the election took place and they suddenly bypassed (old-time ally) BJP and joined the (Congress), that’s different. Three years you cohabit and suddenly, one fine day a group of 34 (Shiv Sena MLAs) says there is discontent. Enjoying the spoils of office and suddenly one day you just…,” remarked the CJI.

According to him, the Governor did not take into account the alliance.

“One, insofar as the Congress and the NCP are concerned, there is no internal dissent…Congress had 44 members and NCP had 53 members. This is a block of 97. The 97 still continue to be a solid block. What is disturbed is (the) 56 (MLAs) the Shiv Sena had… the second thing the Governor has to bear in mind is that as of this date, there is not even a suggestion that the Shiv Sena is going to team up with the BJP to form the government. He can’t be oblivious to the fact that in a three-party coalition (the MVA), the dissent has taken place in one party of the three. The other two are steadfast in the coalition. They are not by any means sidekicks. They’re almost at power,” the CJI said.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Can Shinde Sena issue whip to Thackeray faction? ‘Legally incomprehensible, can’t wish MLAs away’