Goan drama

Print edition : February 25, 2005

The circumstances leading to the dismissal of the Manohar Parrikar government and the assumption of power by Pratapsinh Rane in Goa throw up questions about the roles of the Assembly Speaker and the Governor during a period of political instability.

in Panaji

WHEN the legislator representing Benaulim in the Goa Assembly, Francisco alias Micky Pacheco, merged his United Goans Democratic Party (Secular-Micky) with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on January 27, the latter's strength in the 40-member House rose to 21. But little did one realise that the merger, which secured the BJP a majority on its own for the first time since the 2002 Assembly elections, had set the stage for another round of political uncertainty in the State.

Chief Minister Pratapsinh Rane.-R.V. MOORTHY

On the same day, a visibly confident Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar stripped Atanasio alias Babush Monserrate of the Town and Country Planning portfolio, citing growing corruption in the department. Monserrate resigned from the Cabinet.

On January 29, four BJP legislators - Monserrate, Pacheco, Isidore Fernandes and Pandurang Madkaikar - resigned as Members of the Legislative Assembly. Minister and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) leader Ramakrishna Dhavlikar and independent MLA Filipe Neri Rodrigues resigned from the Cabinet and withdrew their support to the government. Madkaikar and Monserrate had split the MGP and the UGDP to join the BJP. Frenandes had resigned as the Congress legislator from Poinguinim in August 2004, and later won a byelection on the BJP ticket.

The MGP and the UGDP submitted to Governor S.C. Jamir letters withdrawing support to the Parrikar government and extending support to a Congress-led government. Parrikar, who was summoned to the Raj Bhavan on January 29, informed Jamir that he was ready to prove a majority.

With the resignations and withdrawals of support, the BJP's strength in the 36-member Assembly came down to 17 (including the Speaker), the number of seats the party had in May 2002. The Congress' support went up to 19 (Congress 15, Nationalist Congress Party 1, MGP 1, UGDP 1 and independent 1).

However, Tourism Minister and UGDP leader Matanhy Saldanha, who was away in Spain on an official visit at the time of the political developments, contradicted the party's stand and conveyed his support to the Parrikar government, thereby making the tally equal. He sent a fax message to the Governor pledging his "unconditional and unqualified support" to the Parrikar government. Saldanha, a teacher, is held in high esteem in Goa, as he had organised the traditional fishermen, Ramponkars, to fight for their cause. He had refused the Speaker's post and a Cabinet berth until June 2004, when he finally joined the government. Parrikar had dropped Pacheco from the Cabinet to induct Saldanha.

Armed with Saldanha's support, the Parrikar Cabinet passed a resolution on January 31 announcing its decision to seek a vote of confidence in the Assembly on February 3. However, based on a representation given by MLAs who withdrew support to the government, Jamir ordered on February 1 the convening of the House the next day. The Congress formed the United Legislature Party of Goa, comprising regional parties and the independent legislator, and elected former Chief Minister and Opposition Leader Pratapsinh Rane as the coalition's leader. Meanwhile, two BJP MLAs filed petitions with the Speaker seeking the disqualification of Filipe Neri Rodrigues. The petition contended that Neri had joined the BJP in 2002.

On February 2, the prospects appeared bleak for the BJP. With Saldanha, the party had 17 members (excluding the Speaker) and the Opposition 18. Unless the government won over Dhavlikar or Neri, it could not ensure a tie, thereby enabling the Speaker to cast his deciding vote. As Dhavlikar was bound by party whip, independent legislator Neri's support was crucial.

Speaker Vishwas Satarkar had issued a notice to Neri to appear before him in connection with the disqualification petitions. Reportedly, Neri informed the Speaker that he would meet him after the session; an advocate appeared on his behalf before the Speaker. On February 2, Congress legislators met the Governor and expressed their apprehension that the Speaker might disqualify Neri. However, Satarkar reportedly assured the Governor that he would allow all the 36 members to enter the House.

Manohar Parrikar.-V. SUDERSHAN

The session started with Parrikar tabling the one-line motion and Rane initiating the discussion. After the House reassembled, Satarkar invoked Rule 289 (disorderly behaviour) against Neri and asked him to leave the House. This drew strong protests from Congress members. The Speaker's plea to continue the debate was not heard. He then announced that the motion would be put to vote.

In the melee, Dhavlikar, who apparently stood up to protect Neri, was also counted "in favour" of the motion, taking the number of its supporters to 18. Only six members were deemed to have opposed it since some Congress nominees were not in their seats. When the House was adjourned and the ruling party members left, Rane occupied the Speaker's chair and declared that Parrikar lost the vote of confidence. Soon after the session, Congress members rushed to the Raj Bhavan and urged the Governor to dismiss the government. The order of dismissal reached Parrikar within an hour. Rane was hurriedly sworn in Chief Minister at 11-30 p.m. along with Neri, who was made a Minister.

THE BJP alleged that the Governor abused his constitutional powers in dismissing the government even after it won a vote of confidence. The Congress charged the Speaker with misuse of the high office. Later, a statement from the Governor's Officer on Special Duty described the Speaker's action as making a mockery of democracy. The Speaker joined issue with the Governor. Satarkar said that the Governor, after having sought a report from him, should have waited for it before dismissing the government.

On February 3, the Rane Cabinet was expanded by inducting six Ministers, including Madkaikar and Fernandes. Margaret Alva, the All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of party affairs in the State, reached Panaji on February 4, apparently to quell the reported discontent among party legislators. She said that there was no proposal for a Cabinet expansion until the government won a vote of confidence. Pacheco could not hide his discontent. "I was responsible for bringing down the government within 24 hours. What did I get in return?" he asked.

Rane was confidant of securing a majority. The Chief Minister, who accused the Speaker of plotting to kidnap Neri on February 2 from the Assembly, said his party would get the Speaker disqualified first.

The incidents in Goa have raised a whole lot of issues. Was the Governor's dismissal of the government correct in the light of Supreme Court judgments that the floor of the legislature is the place to judge a government's majority? Was Article 164(1) of the Constitution, which says that the Chief Minister and Ministers shall "hold office during the pleasure of the Governor", applicable in the Goan situation? Was the Speaker right in ordering a legislator, especially one whose vote is crucial for the survival of the government, to leave the House on the day it met to vote on a no-confidence motion? Is the anti-defection legislation sufficient to deal with such situations?

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