Maharashtra lesson

Moa Jamir

The Supreme Court's May 11 Judgement on the political crisis that first occurred in June 2022 in the State of Maharashtra has far-reaching implications beyond the state. The decision by a five-judge constitution bench, led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, after hearing a batch of cross-petitions filed by two groups, respectively led by the former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and the present incumbent Eknath Shinde, regarding various developments in the Shiv Sena party, has clarified three key issues – Governor and Speaker Role in intra-party disputes and the power to issue a Whip.

On the first issue, the Court noted that the Governor was not "justified" in calling the then Chief Minister Thackeray to prove a majority on the floor of the House as no "objective material" was before him to conclude that the latter had lost the confidence of the House. "Communication by some MLAs expressing discontent is not sufficient for the Governor to call for a floor test...The Governor ought to apply his mind before assessing if the Government seemed to have lost the confidence of the House," it observed.  However, it added that the status quo ante could not be restored because Thackeray did not face the floor test and tendered his resignation.

Furthermore, the Court upheld the primacy of the political party in appointing a Whip and called it "crucial" for the sustenance of the Tenth Schedule. It added, "The entire structure of the Tenth Schedule, which is built on political parties, would crumble if this requirement is not complied with." The apex Court affirmed that the political party, and not the legislature party, appoints the Whip and the Leader of the party in the House.

Accordingly, the Court also ruled that the decision of the Speaker to recognise Shinde as the Leader of the Shiv Sena Legislative Party (SSLP) and Bharatshet Gogawale as Chief Whip of the party, as communicated by the Deputy Secretary to the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly dated 3 July 2022, was "contrary to law."  In arriving at its decision, the Court noted that on November 25, 2019, a meeting of the newly elected MLAs belonging to the Shiv Sena, chaired by Thackeray as the Party President, appointed Shinde as the Group Leader of SSLP and Sunil Prabhu as the Chief Whip. Thereafter, on June 21, 2022, another meeting of SSLP presided by Thackeray remove Shinde as the Group Leader and appointed Ajay Choudari. However, the other party submitted that on the same day, a separate meeting of the "real" SSLP was held, and thirty-four members reaffirmed Shinde's leadership and appointed Gogawale as the Chief Whip, replacing Prabhu.

However, after his election as the new Speaker on July 3, 2022,  Rahul Narwekar took cognisance of the resolution passed by Shinde-led group, which the Court deemed "illegal." In a contentious situation such as this, the Speaker should have conducted an independent inquiry based on the rules and regulations of the political party to identify the Whip authorised by the Shiv Sena Political Party, it added.

 "The Speaker must only recognise the Whip appointed by the political party," it held, pointing out that plain meaning of the provisions of the Tenth Schedule, 1986 Rules, and Act of 1956 affirm so. Accordingly, it directed the Speaker to recognise the Whip and the Leader duly authorised by the Shiv Sena political party with reference to the provisions of the party constitution and in keeping with the principles discussed in May 11 judgement.

Furthermore, the case of Nabam Rebia and Bamang Felix versus Deputy Speaker (2017) was referred to a larger bench of seven judges to determine the correctness of the decision on the discretionary power of a Speaker and other related matters. The Speaker was instructed to make a decision on the disqualification proceedings of 16 legislators within a reasonable timeframe.  With regards to the party symbols, the Bench did not express its opinion on the case's merits as the matter was still pending before the Court. However, the Court emphasised that such tests should not solely depend on the majority in the legislature but should also consider other factors such as the majority in the organizational wings of the political party and the party constitution.

The Apex Court's decision has far-reaching implications for other states like Nagaland, where frequent changes of party have been witnessed right after elections or during the process of the tenure. The judgement serves as a reminder of the need for adherence to the principles of the Constitution, the neutrality of Governor and the Speaker during any political development. 

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