On Tuesday afternoon, the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, who was chief minister of the western Indian state of Maharashtra for just three and a half days, resigned after he realized that the numbers were no longer with him. The short period in which this drama unfolded was one of the lowest points in India’s fractious political history.
Just a few weeks ago, Fadnavis led a coalition to victory after teaming up with the Shiv Sena, a traditional BJP ally. For five years Fadnavis ruled over India’s richest state, which also houses the country’s financial capital Mumbai. One of the largest states in the country, Maharashtra was a critical test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has been sweeping the polls ever since he won a landslide victory in the general elections in April-May this year.
But what unfolded in Maharashtra after the results were declared on October 24 has constitutional experts in a wrangle. The BJP and the Shiv Sena had a pre-poll alliance and went to the hustings as one team. The alliance secured a comfortable majority, but things soon began to fall apart. The Shiv Sena wanted to share the chief minister’s position equally during the government’s five-year term. However, the BJP rejected the idea and refused to budge. Even before the state’s ceremonial governor could invite the alliance to form a government, the gloves were off.
The political moves in Maharashtra this week have once again raised doubts about India’s ability to rule by law.
The role of the state’s governor, Bhagat Singh Koshyari, has come under severe criticism from all quarters since the election results were announced. The governor of a state is appointed by the federal government to provide guidance and advice to the elected leadership when it is sought. A holdover from colonial times, the role is largely ceremonial but plays a crucial role around elections or when bills are being considered in the legislative house.
However, the governor is a political appointee and is usually a member of the ruling party or a sympathetic ideologue. As the alliance fell apart, Koshyari invoked protocol to invite Fadnavis and the BJP to form a government as the single-largest party in the state. But things had changed for the BJP as its erstwhile ally had moved to the Opposition and begun talks to form a coalition government.
As soon as things began to pick up steam, the federal government turned around and imposed president’s rule, a constitutional provision that allows New Delhi to take over if the elected government is deemed unfit to rule. The decision was taken even as the opposition parties were all set to stake a claim to form the government.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who also served as the BJP’s party president and is a close confidant of Prime Minister Modi, defended the move to impose president’s rule. “They wanted more time. Now they have the time. Let them figure it out,” Shah said in an interview when quizzed about why the federal government had taken over.
Political sources in Maharashtra told Asia Times that the BJP was keen to retain Maharashtra. In terms of revenue, it contributes the largest share in taxes to the central government. This is largely driven by the fact that Mumbai is India’s financial capital and home to the biggest corporate houses in the country. Government rulings in the state exert a great deal of influence, which Modi and his party colleagues do not want to lose.
On the intervening night of November 22-23, the Union Home Ministry quietly revoked president’s rule. By 5 am the governor was asked to invite Fadnavis to visit his official residence to take the oath as chief minister.
“It is deeply disturbing,” a senior Congress leader, who is also a senior lawyer, told Asia Times. “Earlier, the federal home minister said that by declaring president’s rule, he was giving all the parties ample time to negotiate and set up a stable government. But what was the hurry to revoke that status in the middle of the night, get Fadnavis to report to the governor’s house early in the morning, and drag along a man who was sworn political opponent till that time as a deputy chief minister?”
The man this Congress leader was referring to was Ajit Pawar, the nephew of one of Maharashtra’s most prominent leaders, Sharad Pawar. For decades, Pawar has held sway over the state with his regional party, the Nationalist Congress Party. He successfully fought off cancer a few years ago, and was all set to prop up a coalition government including his party, the Indian National Congress and the Shiv Sena. But his nephew Ajit has always been ambitious and has been waiting in the wings for over a decade to take over from his uncle. For years BJP leaders targeted him, running campaigns against him and accusing him of high corruption.
Early morning capers
But by the morning of November 23, Fadnavis, who had earlier tweeted and spoken out on occasion that he would never have any truck with Ajit and his party, was all set to do exactly that. Both of them were sworn in by the governor, throwing away constitutional norms and precedents. “This is unprecedented even by India’s fairly low standards of politics,” another political observer from Maharashtra said. “We have seen political machinations in the past. But we have never seen such brazen maneuvering before where the governor becomes a tool of his erstwhile political party.”
The opposition leaders rushed to the Supreme Court on November 24, a Sunday, for an unprecedented hearing. After mulling over the matter for two days, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a floor test must be held by Wednesday so that Fadnavis could prove his majority in the state assembly. But hours after the Supreme Court issued its orders, Fadnavi knew that the numbers were no longer with him. His traditional opponent Ajit Pawar, who had joined him in the early hours of November 23, was left standing high and dry as none of his party colleagues agreed to stand against his uncle.
While the wily Sharad Pawar has won the day, stitching up a coalition that seems stable to rule a state that contributes the most to the Indian economy, most political observers agree that grievous harm has been done to India’s constitutional norms and propriety.
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