Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s biggest headache seems to have eased with the Election Commission’s May 1 announcement on the holding of election to the nine seats in the 78-member State Legislative Council which fell vacant on April 24. The election will be held on May 21 and counting of votes will be taken up the same day. The election was deferred on April 3 in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an urgency to conduct the election and declare the results before May 27, failing which Uddhav Thackeray would have to resign.
Uddhav Thackeray assumed charge as Chief Minister on November 28, 2019, as an unelected member of the Legislative Assembly. He did not contest the Assembly election held in October. Like his father and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, Uddhav Thackeray has never fought an election, but unlike his father he is holding constitutional office which demands that he be a member of either of the two Houses in the State legislature within six months of assuming office.
This critical position in which Uddhav Thackeray finds himself is something the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been looking forward to. The delay in the holding of the election heightened the BJP’s hope of dethroning its former ally from power. Realising that it was racing against time, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government held a Cabinet meeting on April 9 and decided to recommend the nomination of Uddhav Thackeray to the Council under the Governor’s quota. The meeting was chaired by Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Shiv Sena’s coalition partner. On April 11, a delegation of Ministers led by Ajit Pawar met Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and submitted a letter requesting him to accept its recommendation. The Governor can nominate 12 members, experts in the field of literature, arts and science or dedicated social workers, to the Council. Two seats under this quota had fallen vacant after one member joined the BJP and another got elected to the Assembly in 2019. The Sena hoped the Governor would nominate Uddhav Thackeray on the basis of his expertise in wildlife photography.
The BJP objected to the demand for nomination of Uddhav Thackeray to the Council. Ramkrishnan Rajesh Pillay of the BJP filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the “illegal conduct” of the Cabinet meeting as well as its decision. The argument was that the Chief Minster had not delegated the power to preside over a meeting of Cabinet Ministers to any Minister, including the Deputy Chief Minister and he was not incapacitated in any way that he could not chair a Cabinet meeting himself.
The Advocate General and the government pleader opposed relief for the petition and questioned its maintainability. Justice Shahrukh Kathawalla, who was presiding over the court, declined to give relief to the petitioner, calling the petition premature. He said that under Article 163 of the Constitution the Council of Ministers could aid and advise the Governor in such an exercise. “What the Council of Ministers have done here is giving such aid and advice of appointing Shri Uddhav Bal Thackeray as member of the Legislative Council in terms of Article 171 (3) of the Constitution of India…. In my view, the court’s interference at this stage is not at all required as any such interference at this stage would amount to preventing the Governor from taking an independent decision inter alia qua the validity of the proposal received by him,” he said.
The government sent a reminder to the Governor’s office on April 27 about its request. The lack of response from the Governor’s office agitated the Shiv Sena. In its characteristic style, the Sena accused the BJP of engineering a situation to come to power. Sanjay Raut, Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP and columnist in the Sena organ Saamna, blamed the BJP for the delay in the Governor’s response and said the party had lost its “sense of differentiating between right and wrong”. Other Sena leaders pointed out that the BJP was holding the State to ransom by trying to destabilise the government during a pandemic situation.
The NCP and the Congress expressed similar sentiments but in a more level-headed manner. They said the BJP was apprehensive of Uddhav Thackeray’s popularity and knew he would easily win if he contested an election.
The Sena, the NCP and the Congress in their petitions to the Election Commission stated that in view of the “peculiar, extraordinary, unforeseen facts and circumstances”, Uddhav Thackeray’s election to the Council was delayed.
The Commission’s announcement on May 1, made a few hours after the Governor asked it to hold election “at the earliest”, came as a relief to the coalition government. The announcement came two days after the Chief Minister spoke to the Prime Minister and told him that he had not received any response from the Governor to the Cabinet’s letter.
The next biggest hurdle for Uddhav Thackeray is the BJP, which is the single largest party in the 288-member Assembly and whose members will be electing the nine new Council members. If Uddhav Thackeray is elected unopposed the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi can heave a sigh of relief, but if the BJP puts up a candidate against him, there will be trouble for the coalition.
There is the option of the Governor using his discretion to nominate Uddhav Thackeray. But two tweets by former BJP Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis showed that this could pose a challenge. In one he wrote: “We welcome Hon Governor @BSKoshyari ji’s decision to recommend the ECI to conduct the election of the 9 vacant seats of Maharashtra Legislative Council expeditiously. We are sure that the ECI, in consultation with Ministry of Home Affairs will take decision to take election ASAP.”
And then: “This will prevent Maharashtra from going into instability in the testing times of #CoronaOutbreak &will also uphold the values of our Constitution. It will also uphold the convention that a (MLC) member nominated by Hon Governor shouldn’t join the Cabinet (i.e., become a CM/Minister).”