Jaipur/New Delhi: As a result of the political rebellion in Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot has been divested of the deputy chief ministership and the state Congress presidency, while his supporters have lost their ministerships. But none of them are willing to speak publicly against Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot or the Congress party.
While Pilot maintains that he is not joining the Bharatiya Janata Party, other rebel legislators who are camping in a hotel in Haryana’s Manesar insist on their loyalty to the Congress.
Vishvendra Singh, a close aide of Sachin Pilot who was removed as cabinet minister Tuesday, told ThePrint that he was still with the Congress. “I am a dedicated soldier of the Congress and I am very much part of the party,” he said.
A couple of other rebel MLAs ThePrint spoke to maintained a similar line. And this is despite the fact that Rajasthan assembly Speaker C.P. Joshi has issued notices to these 19 rebels Wednesday, following a petition by the Congress for their disqualification. They have to send in their responses by Friday.
Gehlot supporters and Congress strategists are not impressed by these legislators’ refusal to attack the CM publicly, because they think it’s a ruse to avoid disqualification, which would force the rebels to get re-elected.
The Pilot camp, meanwhile, maintains that since the assembly is not in session, the party whips for their presence at the Congress Legislature Party meetings Sunday and Tuesday were not binding on them, and, therefore, they cannot be disqualified under the anti-defection law. And if they don’t speak against the party publicly, there is no case for the Congress to seek their disqualification for giving up the membership of the party.
Defying the leadership can get you disqualified
Constitutional experts, however, have a different view of the situation. Former Lok Sabha secretary-general P.D.T. Achary said while a whip cannot be issued when the assembly is not in session, Pilot’s camp not attending the meeting can form a part of the grounds for disqualification, and can be interpreted as voluntarily giving up party membership under the anti-defection law.
“A direction issued by the party leadership to the members for a legislature party meeting is not covered by anti-defection law. Anti-defection law only recognises that whip which asks members to come to the House and vote or abstain from voting,” Achary told ThePrint.
“There are no rules which list the circumstances under which a member can be disqualified on the ground that he has voluntarily given up membership of the party. But there are Supreme Court cases on it.”
Giving an example, Achary said: “If a member indulges in anti-party activities, or he goes to the governor along with the opposition party and asks the governor to dismiss the government or allow them to form an alternative government… These are some situations which bring the action of the members within the anti-defection law.”
He added: “Defying the party directive can be a ground for concluding that they have voluntarily given up their membership. It can certainly become one of the grounds for disqualifying them — that they did not attend it and they did not give an explanation why they did not attend it. That means that they have defied the leadership and they don’t want to be a part of the legislative party and therefore, it is presumed that they have voluntarily given up their membership of the party.”
Constitutional expert Prof. Faizan Mustafa agreed with Achary that while technically Pilot is right, “when the party is holding a legislature party meeting, then ideally he should go and attend it, because in the anti-defection law, it is not necessary that the member should vote against the party”.
“You will get disqualified if by your conduct, it seems that you are going against the party leadership,” Mustafa said.
“Conduct is also covered by the anti-defection law. So, he (Pilot) is only right in saying that the assembly is not in session. It is not necessary for the assembly to be in session if by your conduct, you are going against the party,” he added.
“Right now, the Speaker has just asked him to explain his conduct… If in response to the notice, he apologises and reiterates his faith, then the party may take a lenient view on it.”
Pilot camp says notice is a ‘pressure tactic’
The Congress’ swift move to seek the disqualification of the rebel MLAs is learnt to be a “pressure tactic” to bring at least some of the rebels back into the party fold. Although the Congress claims to have the support of 105 MLAs in the 200-member Rajasthan assembly, the party’s own strength has got reduced to 91 from 107 due to the rebellion by 16 MLAs, including Pilot.
Having to depend on non-Congress MLAs could put Gehlot’s government on a sticky wicket. But the party is ensuring that the Pilot camp remains trapped in dealing with the notices and will not be able strike any other deal with the BJP, said a Congress leader.
“One of the reasons the rebels still call themselves Congressmen is because they want to remain MLAs even if they remain unattached after suspension from the party. Whether they genuinely want to come back to the party is something to be seen. The doors are still open for them, but they can’t blackmail,” a second leader added.
Facing the disqualification threat, sources in the Pilot camp told ThePrint that they are “very much with Congress, unless the party decides to remove them”.
A leader supporting Pilot said: “We have been dedicated to the party and have worked hard on the ground. The notice that has been served is completely illegal. When there’s no assembly in session, no bill to be passed, how can a whip be issued? We will definitely respond to the notice.”
Sources further said the Pilot camp is also in touch with lawyers. “It’s too early to say, but if it comes to that, after exhausting all options, we will resort to legal recourse,” added the source.
Another source said the Pilot camp is planning to draft a common response in consultation with lawyers.