Opinion and Editorial

Indian politicians have shamed the constitution

Rahul Singh
Filed on November 26, 2019 | Last updated on November 26, 2019 at 07.08 pm

A little background is needed to appreciate the full import of the historic Supreme Court decision.

Winston Churchill was once asked his opinion on democracy. "It's the worst form of government," he replied, while adding, "Except for all the other forms that have been tried out." Those who have been following the constitutional crisis in the Indian state of Maharashtra are likely to feel that the first part of Churchill's observation was correct, not its caveat, because India has been witnessing democracy working at its worst.

On Tuesday morning, the Indian Supreme Court tried to bring the Maharashtra government back on track by announcing that by 5pm November 27 a "floor test" would have to be conducted in the Maharashtra Assembly to determine whether or not Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had a majority. It used two words in the announcement, "horse-trading", implying that if there was a delay, some members of the assembly (MLAs), could be bribed to switch parties. In fact, huge amounts, in the range of Rs600 to 700 million, are being talked about to induce MLAs to change their allegiances, indicating the low to which Indian politics has fallen. For full transparency, the Supreme Court also said that the floor test would have to be conducted "live" before TV cameras and that there would be no secret ballot.

A little background is needed to appreciate the full import of the historic Supreme Court decision.

The state election that took place recently resulted in a fractured verdict, much to the surprise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had expected to get a majority, since it had scored heavily in the earlier general election. But it got only 105 seats in the 288-member Assembly, well short of the needed 145 seats. The rest of the seats were mainly divided between the Shiv Sena (which had allied with the BJP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP, led by veteran Sharad Pawar), and the Indian National Congress party. The correct constitutional practice is that in such a situation, the Governor first calls upon the party with the largest number of seats to try and form the government. When talks between the BJP and the Shiv Sena broke down, and the Shiv Sena decided to split with the BJP, Fadnavis had no option other than to tell the Governor that he was unable to form a government.

That is when the fun and games started, sullying democracy in India. The number two in the NCP, Ajit Pawar, nephew of Sharad Pawar, stunned everybody, including apparently his uncle, that he was going to ally himself with the BJP and take all the 50-odd members of the NCP, along with him. Going by his word, the Governor swore in Fadnavis as the Chief Minister, and Ajit Pawar as the Deputy Chief Minister. It was a veritable overnight constitutional coup. What the Governor, a BJP man, failed to do was to verify if all the NCP members were, indeed, with Ajit Pawar. It turned out that only four or five were.

That was when Sharad Pawar, probably taken aback by his nephew's revolt, decided to crack the whip, by showing his strength. He called Ajit's bluff, got the Congress and Shiv Sena together, along with those of the NCP who continued to support him, and paraded a total of 162 MLAs on Monday, November 25 evening, before the Press for all to see. His signal was loud and clear: Together, we have a majority and can form the government. The next few days will show if this is really so.

Meanwhile, some important questions need to be addressed and answered. Why did Ajit revolt? One theory is that he was being sidelined for leadership of the NCP by his uncle, in favour of Supriya Sule, the uncle's daughter. The other is that Ajit is facing a number of corruption charges in what is labelled an "irrigation scam" running into thousands of crores, when he was the Irrigation Minister of the state. By joining Fadnavis he was clearly hoping that these charges would be dropped. In fact, only yesterday, November 26, the Indian Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) disclosed that nine of those corruption cases had indeed been dropped due to "lack of evidence". The timing of the ACB's announcement is damning, as it comes a day after Ajit Pawar was made the Deputy Chief Minister! Clearly, there is something very rotten in Maharashtra politics. The image of Fadnavis, a relatively clean politician with a good administrative record, has been badly blotted. On the other hand, opposing side, the alliance of the Shiv Sena, NCP, and Congress is a strange one. The Congress is committed to secularism, the Shiv Sena to hard Hindutva. How will the two be reconciled should they form the next government?

As I write this, Ajit Pawar has submitted his resignation as Deputy Chief Minister to the Governor. Will he now be taken back by his uncle into the NCP or expelled? Devendra Fadnavis, too, has resigned as the Chief Minister. Now the floor test on November 27 will either not take place or be an academic exercise. In this case, the NCP, Shiv Sena, and the Congress alliance, if it remains united, could be asked to form the next state government, as they have the numbers. In the process, however, the Indian democratic system has taken a beating.

Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times


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