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No Speaker poll yet, 12 MLAs suspended from Maharashtra Assembly

While the Congress, a junior partner in the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition was keen to hold the election soon, the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were not.
By Surendra P Gangan, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 06, 2021 01:05 AM IST

The monsoon session of the state assembly did not witness the much-anticipated election for the post of the Speaker – which would have signalled the strength of the ruling coalition government that has seen a rocky year, including a high-profile resignation of the state home minister – even as 12 Opposition legislators were suspended for misbehaviour on Monday.

The election was expected to take place during the two-day monsoon session which ends on July 6, but neither a meeting of the state cabinet on Sunday nor those held by various leaders of the coalition last week, was able to reach a unanimous decision on the date.

While the Congress, a junior partner in the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition was keen to hold the election soon, the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were not.

“Eleven legislators from the treasury benches are absent as they have been affected by Covid. In such a situation it was not advisable to hold the poll,” Congress legislator Balasaheb Thorat said.

The post has been lying vacant after Nana Patole resigned to head the state Congress in February. Deputy speaker Narhari Zirwal has been presiding in the absence of the Speaker. As per the power-sharing pact between the three allies, the post would be held by a Congress legislator.

The election is held via a secret vote and is a bellwether of the strength of the government as it indicates how many members of the legislative assembly (MLA) are in support of the ruling party – or, in this case, the MVA coalition.

“The election to the post of Speaker is held by secret voting, making it difficult to avert the cross voting. Proving the majority would not be an issue, but keeping the votes we received during the confidence motion in 2019 intact is important. Reduction in even a few votes is assumed to be the technical defeat of the government. It would have been senseless to spend the strength on efforts to garner support when the ruling parties are facing volatility,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader on the condition of anonymity.

The MVA government had won a floor test in 2019 by polling 169 votes in 288-member House. Besides the strength of 154 MLAs from three parties the ruling alliance, 15 MLAs from smaller parties and independents also supported the government. The BJP claimed to have the support of nine MLAs from smaller allies and independents.

The unwillingness to conduct an election that could signal support – or the lack of it – comes at a time when the MVA government has faced a series of controversies in the past six months, and BJP leaders have dared the MVA to prove their majority on the floor of the House during the election. Last week, BJP leader Ashish Shelar – one of the 12 MLAs suspended on Monday – said that they would ensure the MVA’s defeat on the floor of the House.

In April, former home minister Anil Deshmukh resigned after the Bombay high court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct an enquiry into his alleged role in a possible cash-for-transfer scam involving police personnel and politicians. The allegation, made by Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis, was based on a report brought out by former state Commissioner of Intelligence Rashmi Shukla. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has summoned Deshmukh, an NCP leader, and his son, Hrishikesh, in connection with this case. In March, former Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh also alleged that Deshmukh ran an extortion racket and directed top cops in Mumbai to collect money from various establishments including hookah bars and restaurants.

Sena legislator Pratap Sarnaik and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s relatives are also under the ED scanner in separate cases for purported financial irregularities. State leaders said that the pressure being built by the investigative agencies, under the BJP-led Centre, are attempts by the BJP to pull down the MVA government. In the past week itself, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar met chief minister Uddhav Thackeray as well as other top ruling coalition politicians to discuss means of “combating the pressure by the Centre”, a senior Congress leader said.

Fadnavis’s meetings with BJP’s top leadership, especially with Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi this week has led a section of BJP leaders to speculate on the longevity of the state government.

“Fadnavis has made it clear that he would not be part of the Union cabinet, which is expected to be expanded in the next few days. It seems that he has convinced the party high command that changes in Maharashtra are possible only if he is camped in the state. If pulling the government down is not possible immediately, it could happen in the near future,” a senior BJP leader and former minister said.

However, in past few days, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have made overtures towards ending the impasse, prompting political experts to contend that it was likely that the Shiv Sena deferred the Speaker election because of talks between the two parties whose political alliance dates back to 1995 and broke only prior to the formation of the current government.

Shelar met Sanjay Raut of Sena this past Saturday; a day later, Fadnavis also said that Sena and BJP may have differences of opinion but they were not enemies. “We have parted ways due to some differences but we are certainly not enemies. Sena and BJP’s fight is not a long- standing traditional war.”

Though the strength of the BJP legislators has been reduced following the suspension of 12 MLAs, including former ministers Shelar, Sanjay Kute, Girish Mahajan, and Jaykumar Rawal, the MVA government is still unlikely to conduct the Speaker election. “They might have an advantage whenever the election is held, but to conduct it during the ongoing session, the government needed to have intimated the Governor in advance. The proposal to that end needs to be passed in the cabinet meeting. With only one day of the session left, the government would have no time left to complete the procedure,” an official from the parliamentary affairs department said on Monday.

The legislators were suspended during the resolution moved by state government to seek empirical data from the Centre in order to restore reservation granted to members of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) which stands to be abolished following a recent Supreme Court order. There is a 27% reservation in local self-government body elections for this category.

As the discussions became heated, Opposition legislators approached the seat of presiding officer Bhaskar Jadhav and tried to snatch the microphone and remove the mace on the table. Jadhav announced the passing of the resolution and adjourned the proceedings for 10 minutes. He later told the members of the Assembly that the MLAs hurled abuses at him and tried to manhandle him.

“This has been unprecedented in my more than three decades legislative career. I was abused by the BJP legislators who also tried to physically assault me. They were supported by leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis,” said Jadhav.

The BJP however refuted Jadhav’s claims with one of the suspended MLAs, Ashish Shelar accusing the MVA government of “putting the Taliban to shame”.

Fadnavis said that the government used the ruckus as an excuse to suspend MLAs. “Our legislators did not abuse the presiding officer. In fact Jadhav used filthy language which I cannot mention. The clashes between Shiv Sena and BJP legislators took place in the cabin when Sena legislators started creating ruckus. We apologised to Jadhav, despite which they suspended our MLAs without discussion.”

The suspension of BJP legislators would not have helped the ruling coalition, Fadnavis said. “The suspension of 12 members would not help the government in winning the speaker’s election as one Supreme Court ruling has mandated against it. The apex court has clearly said that such suspension to facilitate any such floor test is invalid.”

The Assembly on Monday passed a resolution urging the Centre to provide the 2011 Census data to enable the State Backward Class Commission to prepare empirical data of the OBC population, in a bid to restore political reservations for its members in local bodies.

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