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Maharashtra crisis: Parties begin preparation for floor, legal tests

The only way to prove that the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) is a minority government is on the floor of the state assembly, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar said on Thursday — a statement that comes at a time when the government faces its worst crisis with a faction of rebel Shiv Sena legislators looking to break away from the coalition and ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Legal experts told HT that a floor test now seemed inevitable unless Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray resigned as chief minister of his own accord. And leaders on the ground said that both the Eknath Shinde-led rebel camp (assisted by the BJP), and the NCP-Congress-Sena combine have started preparing for it.

The last time a floor test was conducted in Maharashtra was in 1978, when Sharad Pawar split the Congress and formed the government with Janata Party. Pawar was then successful in proving his majority in the House, and went on to become the youngest chief minister of the state.

On Thursday, at a party meeting, Pawar asked his MLAs to be ready for such a floor test.

“If Uddhav Thackeray does not resign, the only way ahead is a floor test. If the Shinde camp moves the governor challenging the majority of the MVA, the former will ask Thackeray to hold a special session of the House and prove his numbers in the state assembly. The floor test will be administered by the speaker, or in his absence, as is the case currently, the deputy speaker (Narhari Zirwal),’’ said former state advocate general Shreehari Aney.

Aney pointed out that, going by the precedent set by the apex court in 2019 —  when it asked the BJP and Ajit Pawar-led faction of NCP to prove its majority in the state assembly within two days — the governor is likely to give a short period to Thackeray to prove his majority. This could work against the MVA as it will give the Shiv Sena less time to lure rebel MLAs back to the Thackeray fold.

In November 2019, former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis (current leader of Opposition in the state from the BJP) and NCP leader Ajit Pawar (current deputy chief minister) formed a government in a clandestine operation. But the Supreme Court-ordered floor test did not take place as Ajit Pawar ended his rebellion against his uncle Sharad Pawar, and resigned from in just three days.

Aney said if Shinde retains the support of two-thirds of the Sena MLAs, the MVA will not be able to prove its majority, and the government will fall. “If two-thirds vote is against the party, then MVA cannot disqualify them on grounds of the anti-defection law. This group can then claim it is the real Sena and is led by its own party leader — in this case Shinde,’’ he added.

According to the 10th Schedule of the Constitution, which spells out the anti-defection law, any group of lawmakers can leave a party and form another if at least two-thirds of the original party favour leaving the party. Shinde therefore requires 37 of the 55 Sena MLAs to side with him for the group to avoid disqualification. By Thursday night, he appeared to have at least 37 MLAs on his side.

However, experts said a floor test was unlikely to be straightforward even with the numbers on Shinde’s side.

The deputy speaker of the assembly, Narhari Zirwal, who is from the NCP, on Thursday recognised Ajay Chaudhary as the Sena leader in assembly after the party hurriedly removed Shinde in the aftermath of his rebellion.  

“The law says that the party head has to nominate party leader and then the party leader has to nominate the whip. And, there is Sena chief’s letter to remove Shinde from the post and appoint Ajay Chaudhary to the post. And, I have accepted it,’’ said Zirwal.  

“I have received a letter from Shinde group with signature of 34 MLAs but given the allegations by some that they were forced, I will have to verify these signatures to see if they are genuine. They can make claims that they have majority but I have to go by the law.”

So, if the acting speaker goes ahead and disqualifies the rebels even if Shinde has more than 37 lawmakers on his side, a long legal battle could follow — allowing Thackeray to use that time to try and win some of his legislators back and bring the rebel faction below the crucial 37 mark.

Late on Thursday, the Shiv Sena sought the disqualification of 12 legislators — Eknath Shinde, Sanjay Shirsat, Sandipan Bhumre, Tanaji Sawant, Bharat Gogawale, Abdul Sattar, Lata Sonawane, Yamini Jadhav, Prakash Surve, Anil Babar, Mahesh Shinde and Balaji Kinnikar— who are widely known to be the most aggressive among the rebel faction.

Part of this is a signal to the rebel faction to do a re-think. But this may also improve the Sena’s chances in a floor test. If disqualified, the rebel MLAs will not be able to enter the state assembly or vote during the motion.

The NCP leadership said on Thursday that the party will back Thackeray as CM until the end. “We are completely backing Thackeray and we will try our very best to see that MVA survives,’’ said state chief Jayant Patil. This was reiterated by Ajit Pawar later in the evening.

The BJP has maintained a studied public silence on the ongoing rebellion in the Sena. But a senior BJP leader and former minister said on the condition of anonymity that the party was ensuring all support to Shinde, including legal advice, to decide the next move.

“Shinde will write a letter to the deputy speaker with signatures of all his supporting MLAs. If Zirwal does not recognise Shinde with 40 signatures of Sena MLAs as party leader, and instead recognises Thackeray-appointed Chaudhary as the nominated leader, we will move court challenging that decision. Once the numbers are with us, floor test will not be difficult,’’ the BJP leader said.

In a video released by Shinde on Thursday, he was seen talking to the rebel group, and acknowledging that a “national party, a ‘mahashakti’…you know they vanquished Pakistan; that party has said that we have taken a historic decision and assured to provide all help.”

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