A close shave in Maharashtra

Print edition : June 22, 2002

The 30-month-old Democratic Front government wins the vote of confidence, but not before cracks in the coalition come to the fore.

INTRIGUE, violence and the craving for power at any cost - recent political developments in Maharashtra have had all the ingredients of a Greek drama. Once considered a progressive and politically stable State, Maharashtra has joined the league of potboiler politics. Waves of defections in June sent up political temperatures. The denouement came on June 13 when the Democratic Front (D.F.) coalition government won a vote of confidence in the 288-member Legislative Assembly by a generous margin of 10 votes - with 143 members voting for the D.F. and 133 for the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. The general sense of relief at the survival of the government was, however, marred by incidents of stone-throwing and arson by enraged Shiv Sainiks.

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal after winning the vote of confidence in the Assembly on June 13.-VIVEK BENDRE

The 30-month-old government has survived, but only just. The recent imbroglio not only brought to the fore the simmering tensions between the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) - the main constituents of the ruling coalition - but highlighted the enmity between Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and the Shiv Sena. It also raised questions about the intricacies of the anti-defection law and proved yet again that coalition governments have a tendency to unravel rapidly.

Legal quibbles played a crucial role in the political crisis. In fact, the Opposition was banking on the representations made by rebel MLAs of the D.F. The game plan was to extend the MLAs' representations beyond the date of the vote of confidence thereby capitalising on the diminished strength of the D.F. The Opposition believed that the provisions of the Civil Procedure Code permitted the MLAs or their representatives to raise preliminary objections, call witnesses, examine and cross-examine them and present arguments. However, Speaker Arun Gujarathi (of the NCP) decided that all depositions would have to be made before June 13. The Opposition protested and called the decision unconstitutional. On the morning of the vote, the Speaker announced the disqualification of all the seven rebel MLAs thereby strengthening the stand of the D.F. The Speaker's decision reduced to 281 the number of members eligible to vote. The number further dropped to 276 after the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) announced its decision to abstain from voting. The D.F. required 139 votes. It claimed it had 142. The Shiv Sena-BJP had 134 votes, and the combine was confident that more MLAs would vote for it. In the event, the D.F. received a clear 143 ayes.

Questions about the interpretation of the anti-defection law are being raised by the BJP, which claims that the Speaker's decision was unconstitutional and smacked of partiality. The seven disqualified MLAs have filed a petition challenging the Speaker's decision, saying it was "against the principles of natural justice". The hearing has been posted for June 20.

The Congress(I) and the NCP have had an uneasy partnership, each accusing the other of letting it down. Besides, personal ambitions and old rivalries resulted in contradictory governance. Jayant Patil, of the PWP, said that the two parties took the smaller partners of the Front for granted and refused to involve them in policy-making. Also, the tensions between the two main parties led to a feeling of insecurity among the smaller allies. During the recent local body elections in 10 zilla parishads the Congress(I) and the NCP chose to ally themselves with the Shiv Sena-BJP rather than with their own coalition partners - an act that the smaller parties feel is as deserving of punishment as defection is. Indeed, the recent crisis reached a flashpoint with the defeat of a PWP candidate in Raigad (Frontline, May 10, 2002), considered a PWP stronghold.

A series of episodes, which can be described as sordid, led to the latest imbroglio. The starting point was undoubtedly the withdrawal of support by the PWP to the D.F. following the re-induction of Sunil Tatkare, an NCP Minister who had engineered the defeat of a PWP member in civic elections.

Tatkare had been removed from the Cabinet in April, in order to placate the PWP, which had protested against his unworthy actions. At the time the help of the PWP, with a strength of five MLAs, was crucial to the survival of the D.F. However, the D.F. leadership committed a blunder in June when it re-inducted Tatkare. The PWP immediately withdrew support, leaving the field open to an attack from the Shiv Sena-BJP. Two days later, the Shiv Sena-BJP claimed that it had the support of "at least 148" MLAs. The D.F. claimed the support of 147 MLAs. On June 4, Governor P.C. Alexander gave the government 10 days to prove its majority in a vote of confidence. That was the signal for horse trading to begin. Since independent MLAs are the easiest to poach, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh quickly inducted three of them into his Cabinet. The move provoked four NCP MLAs to withdraw support of the D.F. and cross over to the Shiv Sena-BJP camp. Each side took to "safe guarding" their MLAs in luxury hotels and club houses.

The Speaker initially gave the dissenting MLAs two days to explain their actions but later extended the deadline to seven days. Speaking to reporters on the first day of the representations, Gopinath Munde of the BJP said that the situation favoured the return of the Shiv Sena-BJP to power. He said that even if the MLAs were disqualified it would not be a matter for concern. He also said that if the MLAs were barred from contesting elections they would still not regret their defection: "We will get their wives elected, or their sons, their daughters...", said Munde, unwittingly summing up the state of Maharashtra politics.

At one point, it seemed as if the defections from the D.F. would result in the fall of the government.

Instead of launching an offensive, both the Congress(I) and the NCP went on the defensive, with even the Chief Minister making defeatist statements such as fresh elections were preferable to a fractured mandate. Other utterances that spoke of instability within the coalition came from two prominent NCP leaders. Shalini Patil said she believed the government should step down rather than lose a vote of confidence. She later toned down her statement, but by then the damage had been done. This was followed by a statement by Minister for Tribal Affairs Madhukar Pichad that he would support the government only if Deshmukh stepped down.

APART from highlighting the rivalry between the Congress and the NCP, the crisis has brought to the fore the hostility that the Shiv Sena has for former Sainik Chhagan Bhujbal. The Shiv Sena has never quite forgiven Sharad Pawar for weaning away Bhujbal. Five of the seven MLAs who defected during this crisis belonged to the NCP. The solitary Congress MLA, Padmakar Walvi, finally returned to the parent party.

One defector belonged to the Janata Dal (Secular) and the other was an independent, a nominated member.

The crisis added a new dimension to Maharashtra politics. Defections have seldom been the rule in the State but the actions of two MLAs - Vinay Kore who moved from the NCP to the Shiv Sena, then back to the NCP and then again to the Shiv Sena with alarming rapidity, and Padmakar Walvi - in particular were noteworthy. Both Kore and Walvi were hitherto virtually unknown.

Walvi's case is interesting in that it was the first time ever that abduction was used as a political tool in the State. Walvi said that he was abducted and confined by the Shiv Sena. A letter that was sent on to the Governor saying he was being held captive was later dismissed by Walvi himself. When contacted by the police at the Shiv Sena-operated Matoshree sports club, Walvi changed tack and said that he was there of his own free will. Later he allegedly made a bid to leave the place, but was "caught". Then Walvi again resorted to writing letters calling for help. Attempts to "rescue" him were once again foiled by Walvi himself, who smilingly said that he was there of his own accord. On June 12, Walvi was back with the Congress(I) after sending a note to the Speaker before making his representation asking for security. His final statement appears to be that he was indeed abducted and held captive.

The crisis has certainly altered inter-party and intra-party politics. It is expected that the Shiv Sena leadership will deal rather stringently with Leader of the Opposition Narayan Rane, who is believed to have been the main strategist behind the defections. After a brief stint as Chief Minister during Shiv Sena-BJP rule, Rane had sworn to unseat the D.F. government and bring the Shiv Sena-BJP back to power. It was Rane who assured Bal Thackeray that the Shiv Sena-BJP was ahead of the D.F. in the numbers game. Rane's plan has not only fallen through but has further tarnished the image of the Shiv Sena.

Rallying forces prior to the vote, Deshmukh had said that the outcome of the vote would make or break the Shiv Sena-BJP combine. He hinted that huge sums were deployed in order to engineer defections. This was, of course, in addition to promises of ministerial positions.

Speaking with unusual candour, Deshmukh said that he hoped his government had emerged stronger from the crisis. For the NCP, it was definitely a close shave. The situation had become so volatile that there was the possibility of the NCP's demise coinciding with the third year of its formation in June. Deshmukh also acknowledged the role of the smaller parties in keeping the coalition afloat. The PWP, which had hedged its bets with great caution, is perhaps the winner of this game. The Chief Minister promised it the restoration of its three ministerial posts and a role in decision-making.

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