Mumbai: With barely one-fourth of the Shiv Sena’s 55 MLAs remaining in Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s camp, the party moved two petitions to the state assembly’s deputy speaker in the past 24 hours, seeking disqualification of 16 rebel legislators.
In the absence of the Speaker, Deputy Speaker Narhari Zirwal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has to take a call on these petitions.
Thackeray’s Sena has adopted a carrot-and-stick policy to try and save the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government — which also includes the NCP and Congress. With around 40 Sena MLAs camping with rebel leader Eknath Shinde in Guwahati, the Thackeray government is tottering.
It has, therefore, resorted to a twin strategy of first offering to abandon the secular parties that constitute the MVA — as demanded by rebels — and then threatening the latter of disqualification as legislators, amid the wrath of Shiv Sainiks who largely remain “emotionally attached” with the Thackerays. Even the offer of leaving the MVA was contingent on the rebel MLAs returning to Mumbai, a scenario that would give the Thackeray camp much scope for manoeuvering.
The disqualification move could be seen as a message to rebel MLAs that they may face the prospect of contesting election again, with over two years of this assembly’s tenure left. This, in the Sena leadership’s view, would rattle those who may be in two minds, even in Guwahati.
MVA leaders are of the opinion that the rebels have gone with Shinde hoping to be part of a BJP-led government after ousting the Thackeray-led government. “But what if they are disqualified or the BJP doesn’t have the numbers to install the government? It’s not Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh that they will get re-elected after being disqualified. If they have to contest, they will be faced with the MVA and angry Sainiks in the election. Do you think they will be ready for that?” a senior MVA leader and MP told ThePrint.
In case of both Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, the MLAs who rebelled were disqualified and most of them had to get re-elected to the assembly.
There are also not-so-veiled messages from the Sena bosses that rebels would have to deal with Shiv Sainiks whenever they return to Mumbai. Party leader Sanjay Raut has said that earlier those MLAs were given the chance to return to Mumbai, and now “we challenge them to come to Mumbai”.
As reported by ThePrint after visiting Sena shakhas in Mumbai, ordinary Shiv Sainiks by and large remain loyal to the Thackerays and rebel MLAs may have to deal with upset Sainiks whenever they return to the city.
Meanwhile, Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aaditya are seeking to mobilise the Sainiks. Aaditya went to the Sena Bhawan in Mumbai Friday morning to meet corporators and other leaders. Uddhav addressed them via video conference later in the day.
At the meeting, Uddhav told corporators and Sena district presidents that his “determination” has not yet left him, party sources told ThePrint.
The CM, they added, further said that he was unwell, recuperating from surgery and Aaditya was in Europe for official purposes when “some people conspired and played the dirty game”. “I could not meet MLAs because of the pandemic and my operation, but the Opposition took this opportunity to strike us,” he added.
The Sena chief also challenged the rebels to “try to win without using the Thackeray name”.
Speaking about Eknath Shinde, he asked what he hadn’t done for the rebel MLA, adding: “I have given him the UD (urban development) department as well…”
The Sena has moved a disqualification petition against 16 party MLAs for absenting themselves from a meeting convened at 5 pm Wednesday.
Sena chief whip Sunil Prabhu had written to all party MLAs, asking them to attend a meeting at the CM’s official residence Varsha.
Invitations to the meeting were sent via all forms of communication, and if any MLA does not attend, said Prabh’s letter, “it will be assumed” that they are “voluntarily leaving the party”, and their party membership will stand cancelled.
According to the law, if an MLA indulges in “anti-party” activities without resigning from the party, it would be deemed “voluntary resignation”, which would attract provisions of disqualification.
In the event the deputy speaker disqualifies any Sena MLAs for “anti-party” activities, the latter will have the option to challenge it in court, but that would entail a long process with uncertainty hanging over their futures.
With the next state assembly election over two years away, most of these legislators may not be inclined to face the electorate now. There lies the Shiv Sena’s gameplan.
Grounds of disqualification under Constitution
Under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, a member of a House belonging to any political party can be disqualified on two grounds — if he/she has “voluntarily given up membership” of the party, or if he/she votes in the House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he/she belongs.
Constitutional expert and former Lok Sabha secretary general P.D.T. Achary had told ThePrint (before the scheduled Sena meeting) Wednesday that “the first situation arises outside the House, and the second arises inside the House”. He explained that “voluntarily given up membership” has not been defined anywhere, and depends on the circumstances.
“Now here, if the dissident members of the Shiv Sena do not attend the party meeting, the party president can say that they have voluntarily given up membership of the party because they have not attended a crucial meeting of the party, in the prevailing political situation in the state. Such a ground can be made for moving a petition to the Speaker, asking him to disqualify them,” Achary further said.
“This depends on the facts and circumstances of each case and there are no hard and fast rules. But it is a crucial meeting for the party and the survival of the government depends on it, so a ground can be made out,” he added.
To avoid anti-defection provisions, Shinde’s camp must have at least 37 (two-third’s majority) of the Sena’s 55 MLAs. As it is, the rebel camp has the numbers to split the party without inviting disqualification provisions.
Soon after Sunil Prabhu’s letter, Shinde had tweeted that party MLA Bharat Gogavale had been appointed chief whip of the Shiv Sena and so Prabhu’s letter was invalid. A day later, rebel MLAs passed a resolution reaffirming Eknath Shinde as the Legislature Party leader and sent it to the governor and deputy speaker.
The deputy speaker wasn’t impressed, predictably, as he went on to approve the Thackeray-led Sena’s request to recognise Ajay Choudhary as legislature party leader, replacing Shinde.
What the MVA appears to be seeking to achieve is to either browbeat and threaten the rebels into submission to save the government, or to ensure dissolution of the assembly by denying a majority to the BJP along with Sena rebels, other MLAs from smaller parties and Independents.
The BJP has been keeping its cards close to its chest. The party would first like to see Eknath Shinde to keep his flock together. Once that is ensured, they can write to the governor withdrawing support from the MVA government.
The governor can then ask the MVA government to take the trust vote. And when the government falls, the BJP can move in immediately to stake claim to form the government or wait for a few weeks to cobble up the numbers while the state is under the President’s Rule.
Of course, the ongoing political drama is unlikely to be over without a few episodes in courts and the Raj Bhawan.
With inputs from Apoorva Mandhani
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)