Just like the 1994 S.R. Bommai ruling, the Supreme Court judgment in the Shiv Sena case, involving a split in the party which led to the appointment of the Eknath Shinde government in Maharashtra, is a milestone in India’s journey on the sometimes tenuous and tendentious course of democracy.
For one, it brings to question the very role of the office of the governor in deciding who should govern the state; and two, it reinforces the spirit of the amendment to the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution that accords primacy of the party organisation over the legislature party. It has also kept open the crucial question of eligibility of Mr Shinde to remain CM and his MLAs to continue as ministers in his Cabinet.
Article 356 of the Constitution gives the governor and the Union government a say in the running of governments in states. It has been used and misused several times in the history of Independent India although chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution Dr B.R. Ambedkar had expressed the hope that it will remain a “dead letter”. The Supreme Court in the Bommai case ended forever the charade of Raj Bhavans ordering a parade of MLAs on their courtyards and ruled that the floor of the Assembly will be the right place to decide if a chief minister held the trust of the House. Likewise, the present judgment has barred governors from allowing their office to be used by partisan interests to engineer downfalls of popular governments.
People with a basic understanding of democratic governance and the Constitution had little doubt in their minds that former Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari was exceeding his brief when he ordered then CM Uddhav Thackeray to take a floor test based on a petition moved by the leader of the Opposition. As the apex court has made it clear, the governor erred in performing his constitutional duty. This judgment should prevent such a spectre from visiting states again.
The court has rightfully rejected the prayer of Mr Thackeray to reinstall his government as he had voluntarily resigned from his post. That is a price Mr Thackeray paid for showing basic decency instead of opting for a fight, both in the legislature and on the streets. However, it is not the end of the road for him as the court has asked the Speaker to decide “in a reasonable period” the question of disqualification of the rival faction which is now in government.
The judgment has come as a shot in the arm for the shaky Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance of the Shiv Sena, the Congress Party and the NCP in the nick of the time. An order giving legitimacy to the Shinde ministry would have seriously questioned the very survival of the Shiv Sena led by Mr Thackeray what with the Election Commission recognising the rivals as the real party, but now he can go back to the party cadre with increased moral standing. It will also, at least for the time being, stabilise the NCP, which is at present divided down the middle despite attempts by the patriarch Sharad Pawar to keep his flock together. The challenge before Mr Thackeray and the MVA is to translate this legal victory into a political one.