While announcing the verdict in the Shiv Sena MLA disqualification case, Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar has given huge relief to incumbent Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. Narwekar has rejected the petition for disqualification of Shinde and 15 other MLAs of the Shiv Sena. The Speaker has also given a verdict calling the Shinde faction the real Shiv Sena, rejecting Thackeray’s arguments over the functioning of the party. In what appears to be an attempt to show his verdict judicious, Narwekar has also rejected the Shinde faction’s petition to disqualify 14 MLAs of the Thackeray camp, calling it “a mere allegation without substantial proof”. The Speaker was asked to decide on the disqualification by the Supreme Court in May 2022. Now the Thackeray camp is all set to go again in the Supreme Court to press their case.
After Eknath Shinde rebelled against then Chief Minister and his party chief Uddhav Thackeray on June 20, 2022, the Thackeray faction had moved the disqualification petition with then Deputy Speaker of the Assembly Narhari Zirwal (the post of Speaker was vacant during the time as Congress leader Nana Patole had resigned a few months prior to these happenings) in the same week.
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Then the vacation bench of the Supreme Court had stopped Deputy Speaker from taking any decision in the case. After hearing the case for 11 long months, the Supreme Court’s five judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India had given a ruling saying that the issue of disqualification comes under the purview of the Speaker. The court has kept the window open for the Uddhav Thackeray camp if it feels the Speaker is not giving them justice. The Speaker Rahul Narwekar, who is a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Colaba, Mumbai, kept the issue pending for almost three and a half months.
Again, the Supreme Court had to give directions to the Speaker to finish the hearing of the case at the earliest and give his verdict before December 31. The date was later extended until January 10. On the last date of the deadline, the Speaker delivered the verdict, which suits his party, the BJP, politically.
In reasoning his verdict on why the Thackeray faction’s petition cannot be accepted, Narwekar said that three parameters are important to see who the real party is in this case.
“The first is the constitution of the party, The leadership structure of the party, and the number of Legislative Assembly members. Only on this basis, the real Shiv Sena can be decided here.” Interestingly, the Supreme Court has not asked Narwekar to decide which is the real Shiv Sena.
But to take a decision on the disqualification, Narwekar has reasoned that the need to know who the real party is important to find out in this case. About the constitution of the party, Narwekar said that though the Thackeray faction is claiming that there was an amendment made in the party constitution in January 2018, the documentation of it was not provided to the Speaker’s office. “So, the constitution which was accepted by the Election Commission of India is accepted in this case.”
The Shiv Sena had first made the constitution in 1999, where the decision to appoint the leader of the legislative party was given to party MLAs. But as the Thackeray camp claimed, the amendment of January 2018 gives the rights to party president Uddhav Thackeray. Narwekar rejected this argument and said that Shinde’s election as leader of the legislative party is valid. He said that the two rival groups emerged in the Shiv Sena for the first time on June 21, 2022. On that day, as per the 1999 party constitution, Shinde’s becoming leader of the party is right. As Shinde became the party leader in a constitutional way, the whip of the assembly party Sunil Prabhu ceased being in the post.
The Speaker thus accepted Bharat Gogawale, a leader of the Shinde faction, as the whip of the party. Interestingly, in its verdict, the Supreme Court has accepted Sunil Prabhu as the whip of the party. The Speaker’s decision goes against the apex court’s verdict in this case. But, based on Shinde as leader of the legislative party on June 21, 2022, the Speaker rejected the disqualification petition against him.
The Speaker has also rejected the claims of the Thackeray camp that Shinde and 15 other MLAs were not present in the legislative party meeting on June 22, 2022, so they need to be disqualified. Narwekar here said that not attending the party meeting or, in a way, giving some statement against the party’s policy outside the Assembly cannot be the reason to disqualify the member under Schedule 10.
“It can be called dissent, at the most. But this does not mean that the member can be disqualified over not attending a meeting or just making some statement,” said Narwekar. Regarding the objection raised by the Thackeray faction that Shinde and 15 other members were incommunicado on June 21, 2022, the Speaker said that the party general secretary Milind Narvekar and MLC Ravindra Phatak had met Shinde in these days.
However, the Shinde faction also filed a petition in the Speaker’s office against 14 MLAs of the Thackeray camp. While rejecting this petition also, Narwekar said that the Shinde camp failed to show strong evidence that 14 MLAs were informed properly regarding the party meetings and policies.
The Speaker’s verdict has not surprised anyone in Maharashtra. Even opposition leaders such as Rajya Sabha MP and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) camp leader Sanjay Raut, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Congress State president Nana Patole, and many other opposition members had expressed doubts over the intentions of the Speaker. In the last week, Narwekar met Chief Minister Shinde twice at the latter’s government bungalow. Uddhav Thackeray had raised questions over these meetings saying that if the judge is going to the home of the culprit, then how can people expect justice in the matter.
After the verdict, Uddhav Thackeray said that his party will move to the Supreme Court. “This is the murder of democracy. BJP fears us. That’s why they want to rob our party. But we will go to the people and will defeat this sinister plan to snatch Shiv Sena from us.”
In Thackeray’s support, the alliance partners NCP and Congress have also called the Speaker’s verdict a travesty of justice. “We are with Uddhav Thackeray. The people of Maharashtra are with Uddhav Thackeray. Nobody can imagine Shiv Sena without Thackeray. The people of Maharashtra will give justice to Thackeray through electoral outcome,” said Patole.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar has also supported the Thackeray camp and said that the Supreme Court will reject the verdict of the Speaker. On the other hand, Chief Minister Shinde said that his claims of being the real Shiv Sena have been accepted by the Election Commission first and now the Speaker. “We did no wrong. We have been saying this. First, the Election Commission stood by us. The Supreme Court also accepted our arguments. Now the Speaker has also given a verdict in our favour. Now they (Thackeray) should stop calling us ‘illegal’ governments,” he said.
Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis also said the Speaker’s verdict clearly shows who the real Shiv Sena is. “This verdict has cleared the air about the real and fake Shiv Sena. The Supreme Court had also said the same thing and the Speaker’s verdict has supported it,” said Fadnavis.
The Supreme Court had also directed Narwekar to take a decision on the disqualification of Ajit Pawar’s faction. The Speaker must decide by January 31, as per the Supreme Court guidelines. The hearing in this case will start on January 21. The Sharad Pawar faction has filed a petition against Ajit Pawar and 39 other MLAs. The Shiv Sena verdict will have an impact on the Ajit Pawar versus Sharad Pawar case. The Election Commission has completed the hearing on the matter, where both sides have made a claim that they are the real NCP. But the verdict is pending in the case.
As per Schedule 10, the disqualification of members in such cases is limited to the ongoing term only. The members can again contest the election after the completion of the term. The Maharashtra Assembly will be dissolved in September 2024, as per the schedule. Therefore, only eight months are left for the membership of all current MLAs. Of these eight months, three months will go towards the general election. Even though the Shinde camp rebelled against Thackeray in 2022, the hearing of the case has lasted 18 months now.
Still, the last battleground of the legal battle—the Supreme Court—is pending. That is why the delay in the case has already put Shinde and his MLA colleagues in a political comfort zone. What remains is the moral high ground in this case. Any further delay in the verdict will gradually cease even that moral ground of the side, whoever is going to win in this battle.