Stalemate on Speaker election in Maharashtra

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray calling on Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari on May 18, 2020, after getting elected as a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Nana Patole after his election as Maharashtra Congress president on February 12, 2021. His resignation as Speaker after his election to this party post produced a stalemate that remains unresolved. Photo: The Hindu

The stalled election for the post of Speaker in Maharashtra again exposes bad blood between the Governor and the State government.

Maharashtra has not had a Speaker in the State Legislative Assembly for the last three sittings of the House. The previous Speaker, Nana Patole of the Congress, resigned in February 2021 when he was appointed president of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee. Since then, the Deputy Speaker, Narhari Zirwal Sitaram of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), has been managing the affairs of the House.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) had planned to hold the election for a new Speaker on December 28, the last day of the winter session. But this did not happen because Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari did not give his consent. Until the afternoon of the very last day of the winter session, the government was considering holding the election without the Governor’s consent but finally decided to hold off. The incident once again highlights the tussle between the Governor and the three-party coalition government in the State.

Some background is required to understand why a straightforward election has become so complicated.

After the Assembly elections in 2019, when the MVA was formed, Nana Patole of the Congress was elected as the Speaker of the House. In February 2021 he resigned because of his new appointment as head of the State Congress. It was a sudden move and it angered the NCP and the Shiv Sena. “The MVA government had constantly been under attack by the opposition leaders who had the full backing of the Centre. So, to resign from a critical post like the Speaker’s without discussion with the partners was seen as irresponsible,” explained a retired bureaucrat.

The NCP’s Zirwal became the acting Speaker. Immediately after Patole’s resignation, the Leader of the Opposition and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis wrote to the Governor demanding an election. The Governor forwarded the letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who pleaded COVID-19 restrictions for postponing the election.

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to derive advantage from the situation. It said the MVA was an unstable government and could not even agree on a candidate for the post of Speaker. While the MVA wanted time to decide on the election, the BJP pressed hard for it.

After months of discussion within the MVA, a decision was taken to hold the election on the last day of the winter session of the House. The Governor was informed of it on December 24 and a delegation of three Ministers—Balasaheb Thorat, Eknath Shinde, and Chhagan Bhujbal—met him on December 26 to request him formally for his consent for the election date.

But then came another twist in the tale. On December 27 the Governor gave his reply. He said that he was examining the constitutional validity of some of the amendments made by the Rules Committee of the State Legislature. One of the amendments made was to conduct the election of the Speaker by a voice vote instead of a secret ballot. The government replied that this was perfectly constitutional, but the Governor chose to put it on hold.

There are two issues that are at play here. One is the constitutional argument. The other is the voice vote amendment.

In mid December the government moved a motion in the Assembly to amend Rules 6 and 7 of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Rules that deal with the election process for the post of Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively.

Two significant amendments were made. One, the line “to elect the Speaker on the recommendation of the Chief Minister” was added in Rule 6 of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Rules. Two, the election would be carried out by a voice vote instead of the existing secret ballot. Both amendments were passed by voice vote, which was stiffly opposed by the BJP. The BJP taunted the government, calling it “insecure” and fearful of cross-voting during the election process. It said the MVA did not trust its own MLAs. The BJP also objected to amendments being made in the absence of a Speaker. The MVA stood its ground and said that the amendments were constitutional and a voice vote would prevent horse-trading. So, how important is it to get the approval of the Governor for the election? While the State government in Maharashtra has the constitutional right to decide the process as well as the time frame for the election, the Governor holds the right to notify the election.

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The State’s right is upheld by Article 178 of the Constitution that says “Every Legislative Assembly of a State shall, as soon as may be, choose two members of the Assembly to be respectively Speaker and Deputy Speaker thereof and, so often as the office of Speaker or Deputy Speaker becomes vacant, the Assembly shall choose another member to be Speaker or Deputy Speaker, as the case may be.”

The Governor’s right is upheld by Rule 6 of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Rules: “The Governor shall fix a date for the holding of the election and the Secretary shall send to every member notice of the date so fixed.”

On December 28, when the winter session of the State Assembly concluded, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar addressed the media. He said: “The Governor’s post is important. It has to be respected. We do not want to do anything unconstitutional. During our Budget session on February 28, we will hold the election. And till then we will continue to have discussions with the Governor.”

Nana Patole of the Congress was more assertive when he said: “The whole election process could have been finished in one day but the Governor sent a letter at the last minute. To avoid legal hassles, we called off the election.”

But for all Ajit Pawar’s and Patole’s seemingly diplomatic statements, it seems like the only way to resolve this stalemate is via the courts.

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