The Indian state of Maharashtra experienced a political impasse over government formation this November, following the state-election of Vidhan Sabha (Lower House). Amidst this political deadlock, leadership of Bharatiya Janata Party made certain political decisions that principally violated the Indian constitution and debased different state institutions. As the dust now settles in Maharashtra, a comprehensive study of the role played by relevant Indian institutions, along with key takeaways that the impasse offers need to be studied.
For years, India’s soft power has thrived on its secular and democratic political system. During the last decades of 20th century, India gained prominence for its unfettered commitment to democratic norms, despite being a previously-colonized Asian state. However, the political landscape of India altered with the rise of right-wing politics during 1990s. In 1996, BJP formed its first central government. Down the lane, it has emerged as the most popular political party, currently serving its second consecutive term as the central government, following 2019 general elections. BJP’s increasing thirst for power was recently unleashed in Maharashtra.
The state of Maharashtra, largely inhabited by Marathas, is India’s economic hub and the nucleus of Shiv Sena’s political influence. Shiv Sena, an ethno-nationalist political party emerged during the 1960s, demanding preferential treatment for Marathas against other minorities. Owing to the ideological similarities between BJP and Shiv Sena, the two parties have historically remained allies. However, 2019 Maharashtra state election turned the tables, revealing different contours of Indian political landscape.
Realising BJP’s condescending attitude and its refusal to form government on rotational basis, Shiv Sena denounced the alliance.
The announcement of election results on 24 October declared BJP the strongest contending party with 106 seats. However, to achieve the required majority for government formation, BJP’s all-weather alliance with Shiv Sena was required, which had won 56 seats. Realising BJP’s condescending attitude and its refusal to form government on rotational basis, Shiv Sena denounced the alliance. Soon after, the National Congress Party (NCP) with 54 seats and Congress with 44 seats were taken on board by Shiv Sena to form the state government. As the rest of the parties struggled to achieve a Common Minimum Program, a besieged BJP found Maharashtra slipping out of its hands given the unwillingness of all parties to ally with it.
As NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena made and broke alliances with breakneck speed, BJP attempting to forcibly gain the control of Maharashtra, resorted to unconstitutional means. The first institution to malfunction was the Governor’s Office, next was President’s and then Prime Minister’s. In the midst, state institutions were debased, and constitutional obligations compromised by the sitting government several times.
Following the political parties’ inability to reach a consensus after some 20 days of result announcement, BJP’s Governor to Maharashtra, Bhagat Singh Koshyari advised the Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to impose president’s rule under Article 356 in Maharashtra. Kovind, after taking approval from the Union Cabinet, imposed president’s rule, thereby transferring the control of Maharshtra to the central government of BJP. Re-elections were scheduled to be held after six months.
The constitution of India justifies imposition of President’s rule under the following circumstances: a) Failure of constitutional machinery, and b) Failure of state legislature to perform as per constitutional provisions. Ironically, in Maharashtra, none of the two conditions prevailed. Here, the constitutional machinery was taken down by the President himself when a constitutional solution to the fiasco was just in the offing. The rule was imposed on the pretext that the contesting parties had failed to reach a consensus in specified time frame. However, the demands for extension in the time frame were already rejected by the Governor’s office. The imposition of the president’s rule came as BJP’s impulsive attempt to regain its control of Maharashtra, when constitutionally it was impotent. As argued by Shiv Sena, the imposition of president’s rule was a violation of Article 14 and 21 of the Indian constitution. The move was also claimed to be unconstitutional, unreasonable, and mala fide by Shiv Sena leadership.
President’s compromised obligations, governor’s partisan conduct and prime minister’s thirst for power accretion, if left unchecked, will afflict the Indian political culture for years to come.
The next epic in the episode came when the BJP’s governor to Maharashtra hastily swore in BJP’s Davindra Fadnavis as chief minister and NCP’s defected Ajit Pawar as deputy chief minister of the state. This came as a shock for the rest of the parties as BJP clearly did not have the required majority to unilaterally form state government in Maharashtra. Deeming the act as ‘Murder of Democracy’ the three parties took the issue to the apex court demanding floor test.
The Indian Supreme Court, in response ordered a floor test to be conducted with live telecast. Owing to this ruling, Fadnavis was quick to resign, confessing that BJP did not have the required mandate to form the government. Ajit Pawar had also resigned a day earlier.
Next, when NCP, Congress, and Shiv Sena were protesting the unconstitutional imposition of president’s rule, the revocation of it came in an even more dramatic and unconstitutional fashion. At midnight of 22 November, president’s rule was unilaterally revoked without any formal approval from union cabinet, as necessitated by the constitution. Here once again constitution stood violated by the central government.
Lastly, the petty intricacies of Indian political fabric and political degeneration came to fore when the senior leadership of NCP, Congress, and Shiv Sena sequestered their elected MLAs in different parts of the country, fearing the risk of them being poached by BJP. This helps one decipher the sad state of political and ideological commitments of the elected legislators, which are fragile enough to be altered by mere ministerial berths and monetary gains.
In a country that faces several separatist movements and homes a huge chunk of radicalised individuals, political injustices might bring consequences – highly detrimental for India’s integrity.
This political impasse brings about several takeaways for domestic and international audience. First of all, BJP’s blatant violation of constitutional demands demonstrates the degree to which the Modi administration is willing to stoop in order to maximise its power. Next, though the Indian Supreme Court passed a satisfactory order regarding Fadnavis and Pawar’s unlawful accession to offices, yet how it chooses to react to the unconstitutional imposition and then revocation of president’s rule stands to test. Further, the Maharashtra episode is expected to bring a negative toll to BJP’s vote bank. However, if it fails to do so, the state of political literacy and orientation of Indian citizens shall be revealed. Moreover, Modi’s superfluous ideas about BJP’s indispensability to the Indian political fabric now stand invalidated. The Maharashtra crisis asserts that a unified opposition is capable of bringing down the effect of BJP.
The most lethal implication, however, remains the negative precedent set up by the BJP administration. President’s compromised obligations, governor’s partisan conduct and prime minister’s thirst for power accretion, if left unchecked, will afflict the Indian political culture for years to come. What remains a fact is that today democracy has been reduced to nothing more than an optic in the humungous state of India and constitution has been left at the mercy of political top dogs. In a country that faces several separatist movements and homes a huge chunk of radicalised individuals, political injustices might bring consequences – highly detrimental for India’s integrity.
Concluding with the words of a 19th century British jurist Walter Bagehot: “Constitutions are easily copied, temperaments are not; and if it should happen that the borrowed constitution and the native temperament fail to correspond, the misfit may have serious results.”