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Crisis within a crisis: The dilemmas before the Maharashtra Chief Minister

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Even as the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, a political storm seems to be brewing in Maharashtra. The Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is reaching the end of the six month period within which he has to be elected to the State Legislature. Given that Maharashtra has a bi-cameral legislature he has the option of entering either the Assembly (by winning a by-election) or becoming a member of the Council (through election or nomination).

Crisis within a crisis: The dilemmas before the Maharashtra Chief Minister

The lockdown has placed a moratorium on holding elections to the Legislative Council and the Chief Minister is thus left with very limited options at this stage. The Maharashtra Cabinet has recommended to the Governor that the Chief Minister be nominated to the Legislative Council. The Governor is still to make his stand clear on the cabinet proposal.

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While the focus of attention is very much on containing the spread of COVID-19, the challenges before the Maharashtra Chief Minister in getting himself elected to the State Legislature, get further complicated by two additional factors. Firstly, the fact that he heads a coalition government requires his to ensure the support of his partners for any move that he makes. Secondly, in his effort to become a member of the Legislative Council, he would need the active support of the Governor. Given the fact that the Governor is someone who has been an active BJP politician in the past, makes the Chief Ministers problems even more complex.

In the present situation, the option being pursued of getting the Chief Minister nominated to the Legislative Council appears to be simplest and easiest option. Yet, this option too has important stumbling blocks. Technically, a nominated member of the Legislative Council has the same status and privileges as an elected member. If Uddhav Thackeray were to be nominated to the Council by the Governor, it would be the first case of a Chief Minister entering the Legislature through this route.

In the past, Chief Ministers who were not members of the Legislature at the time of becoming Chief Minister have been elected to the Legislative Council within the mandated six month period. The cases of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Sadananda Gowda in Karnataka can be cited in this regard. However, all these Chief Ministers were elected to the Legislative Council. What is now being sought by the Maharashtra cabinet from the Governor, is the nomination of the Chief Minister to the Council.

The Legislative Council (like the Rajya Sabha) has a few nominated members. They are nominated by the Governor (President in the case of the Rajy Sabha) from among those who have excelled in the field of education, sports, arts, science, public and social service. By convention, citizens who have distinguished themselves for their contribution to society and are generally not members of political parties have been nominated.

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It must be immediately conceded that a number of those nominated both to the Legislative Council by the Governors and to the Rajya Sabha by the President have been active members of a party. It must also be conceded that in the states, many Ministers were nominated to the Legislative Council as members, but never a Chief Minister!

Would the Governor of Maharashtra accede to the request of the Cabinet or invoke the rule that a nominated vacancy can be filled up only if the term of the vacant seat is for more than one year. In the current case, it is believed to be less than a year.

At the central level, never has a nominated member been made a Minister. There was one case which is often talked about. In 1971, Prof. Nurual Hasan was made Minister of State (with independent charge) of Education. Prof Hasan had served as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha from 1968 to 1971.

Just before becoming a Minister in Indira Gandhi's Council of Ministers he resigned as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. Subsequently he got elected to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress candidate from Uttar Pradesh and was a Member for two terms between 1971 and 1978.

The second option before the Chief Minister is a bizarre option, which could well make a mockery of the constitutional provisions. The Chief Minster could well resign as Chief Minister and then get the alliance to once again elect him as leader and be sworn in as Chief Minister again, and then he would have six more months to get elected! However, this option would require an approval from the coalition partners and more importantly a nod from the Governor.

The third option for the Chief Minster is to resign and get the alliance to choose a new leader who is sworn in as the new Chief Minster. The new leader could well be from the Shiv Sena and be seen as a stop-gap arrangement till such time as Uddhav Thackeray can get himself elected to the legislature. The Chief Minister may well want to anoint his son to this position and keep the seat safe till he is able to return to it. Would the coalition partners, especially the NCP be fine with such an arrangement or would they press for a stop-gap Chief Minister to be from their party. The fear of the Shiv Sena would then be that the NCP may want the stop-gap arrangement to be a more long term measure.

Thus, amidst the war against COVID-19, Maharashtra faces a political crisis. Even though Maharashtra is the state that has been most adversely affected by the pandemic, it needs to also grapple with a political conundrum. One only hopes that it does not in any way divert the energies of those in power away from the health crisis that needs to be tackled on a war footing.

(Dr Shastri is a political and election analyst who is also the Pro Vice Chancellor of JAIN)

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