New Delhi/Mumbai | Eknath Shinde will continue to be the chief minister of Maharashtra after the Supreme Court held on Thursday it cannot reinstate the MVA coalition government headed by Uddhav Thackeray since the Shiv Sena leader chose to resign without facing the floor test in the wake of a rebellion in his party.
The unanimous verdict by a five-judge Constitution bench came as a relief for Shinde even as it censured former Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari over his decision calling upon Thackeray to prove his majority in the Assembly based on a request by the Shinde faction of the Sena. Shinde, who led the rebellion in the Shiv Sena against Thackeray sparking a nine-day political crisis in June last year, later tied up with the BJP to form a new government.
Refusing to disqualify the 16 rebel Shiv Sena MLAs including Chief Minister Shinde, the bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said the court cannot ordinarily adjudicate disqualification petitions under the anti-defection law and directed the Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar to take a decision on the pending matter within a "reasonable period." The court also said the decision of the Speaker to appoint Bharat Gogawale of the Shinde faction as the whip of the Shiv Sena in the Assembly was "contrary to law".
After the keenly awaited verdict was pronounced, rival political camps in Maharashtra claimed vindication of their positions.
Uddhav Thackeray, who is Shiv Sena (UBT) president, sought the resignation of Shinde and his deputy and senior BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis on moral grounds, a demand swiftly rejected by top ruling coalition leaders.
The judgment reinstates trust in democracy, said Thackeray, who was the chief minister of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, comprising the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress. He resigned on June 29, 2022 after the rebellion in the undivided Shiv Sena.
Thackeray said his resignation as the chief minister may have been legally wrong, but he did it on moral grounds.
On the other hand, a relieved Shinde asserted his nearly 11-month-old government was legal and formed within constitutional framework, adding it has now got the stamp of the Supreme Court.
The court gave its verdict on a batch of pleas related to the political crisis. The Uddhav Thackeray faction had also urged the top court to adjudicate the pending disqualification petitions alleging that Speaker Narwekar is biased.
Supporters of the Shinde-led Shiv Sena broke into celebrations in Nashik. They burst firecrackers, distributed sweets and danced to the beats of drums.
Holding that Koshyari did not have reasons based on objective material before him to arrive at the conclusion that Thackeray had lost the confidence of the House, the top court said the governor is not empowered to enter the political arena and play a role (however minute) either in inter-party disputes or in intra-party disputes.
"The governor was not justified in calling upon Mr Thackeray to prove his majority on the floor of the House because he did not have reasons based on objective material before him to reach the conclusion that Mr Thackeray had lost the confidence of the House. However, the status quo ante cannot be restored because Mr Thackeray did not face the floor test and tendered his resignation," it said.
“Had Thackeray refrained from resigning from the post of the Chief Minister, this court could have considered the grant of the remedy of reinstating the government headed by him.” Noting that the political imbroglio in Maharashtra arose as a result of party differences within the Shiv Sena, the court said the floor test cannot be used as a medium to resolve internal party disputes or intra-party disputes. The verdict among other things dealt with aspects concerning powers of Governor, Speaker and defection.
Justice Chandrachud, who wrote the 141-page verdict on behalf of the bench, however, said the governor was justified in inviting Shinde to form the government, a day after the resignation of Thackeray.
Reacting to the verdict, Koshyari said it was a "considered" decision to ask Uddhav Thackeray to face a floor test.
"I am not an expert in law but I am knowledgeable about parliamentary and legislative traditions and it was a considered decision to ask the then chief minister Uddhav Thackeray to seek the vote of confidence in the House," he said.
Speaker Narwekar said the Supreme Court had upheld his stand on the disqualification of MLAs. "I have been consistently saying that it would be the Speaker who will decide (on this matter),” he told reporters from London.
Legal experts said the ball was now in the court of the Speaker.
"The decision on disqualification lies with the Speaker, but the Supreme Court has not specified any time period within which the decision must be taken," Justice S C Dharmadhikari, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court, told PTI.
At a news conference, senior Congress leader and spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi urged the Speaker to decide expeditiously on pending disqualification petitions while asserting that if they are not decided within a reasonable time the matter will be challenged in the top court again.
The top court said that once a government is democratically elected in accordance with law, there is a presumption that it enjoys the confidence of the House and there must exist some objective material to dislodge this presumption.
"The governor had no objective material on the basis of which he could doubt the confidence of the incumbent government. The resolution on which the governor relied did not contain any indication that the MLAs wished to exit from the MVA government. The communication expressing discontent on the part of some MLAs is not sufficient for the governor to call for a floor test." The bench, also comprising Justices M R Shah, Krishna Murari, Hima Kohli and P S Narasimha, said the governor ought to apply his mind to the communication (or any other material) before him to assess whether a government has lost the confidence of the House.
"We use the term 'opinion' to mean satisfaction based on objective criteria as to whether he possessed relevant material, and not to mean the subjective satisfaction of the governor." The court noted that a section of the MLAs did not express their desire to withdraw support from the MVA government in the resolution dated June 21, 2022 and even if it is assumed they had implied that they intended to exit from the government, they only constituted a faction of the Shiv Sena Legislature Party (SSLP) and were, at the most, indicating their dissatisfaction with the course of action adopted by their party.
It said neither the Constitution nor the laws enacted by Parliament provide for a mechanism by which disputes among the members of a particular political party can be settled.
"They certainly do not empower the governor to enter the political arena and play a role (however minute) either in inter-party disputes or in intra-party disputes. It follows from this that the governor cannot act upon an inference that he has drawn that a section of the Shiv Sena wished to withdraw its support to the government on the floor of the House.
"Therefore, the governor erred in relying upon the resolution signed by a faction of the SSLP MLAs to conclude that Mr Thackeray had lost the support of the majority of the House," the court said.
The top court also referred the 2016 Nabam Rebia verdict pronounced by a five-judge Constitution bench relating to the Speaker's power on disqualification of MLAs to a larger bench of seven judges, saying a substantial question of law remains to be settled.
The 2016 judgment dealt with the powers of an Assembly speaker and ruled that he or she cannot proceed with pleas for disqualification of MLAs if a prior notice seeking the speaker's removal is pending before the House.