Post-election intrigues are not uncommon in India, as is perhaps to be expected in an enthusiastic multi-party democracy. But as the political drama in Maharashtra drew to a conclusion on Tuesday, it was clear that the damage it has wreaked does not end with the political class. The cynical manner in which events played out could also deepen the mistrust in India’s institutions.
Early on Saturday morning, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Devendra Fadnavis took over as chief minister of the state after the President’s rule was revoked overnight. He assumed office with the support of Nationalist Congress Party dissident Ajit Pawar. The Opposition alliance consisting of the NCP, the Shiv Sena and the Congress fought back and took the matter to the Supreme Court. The court on Tuesday asked Fadnavis to prove his majority in the assembly by 5 pm on Wednesday. Unable to muster the required numbers, Fadnavis resigned, a major set-back for the BJP.
During the week, three institutions that are expected to uphold the public good over petty politics lost face. The first was the Prime Minister’s Office. In his eagerness to undermine his political opponents in Maharashtra, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to the extent of invoking the emergency powers vested in him to recommend the revocation of the President’s rule in the middle of the night. These powers are expected to only be used in times of crisis, when calling for a cabinet meeting could delay decisions and jeopardise national interest. Modi, however, conflated the narrow interests of his party with those of the nation.
Of course, one could always argue that the prime minister is a political figure so his decision to use his powers for partisan ends should not come as a surprise. It is precisely to check such executive arbitrariness that the Constitution makers put in checks and balances and created positions that they thought would rein in political excesses. But these constitutional institutions also failed India spectacularly.
First was Maharashtra’s governor, BS Koshyari, who probably stayed awake all night on Friday to do as he was asked to by the Centre. Acting with unprecedented haste, he facilitated the BJP’s takeover of the state government without asking basic questions. How did Ajit Pawar manage to get the approval of NCP MLAs to back Fadnavis when only the previous evening they had agreed with their alliance partners to appoint Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackrey as chief minister? The situation resembled cricket matches of a previous era, when home umpires in Test matches would stubbornly refuse to send the home team batsman back to the pavilion, irrespective of how definite the dismissal was.
The biggest disappointment, however, was dealt by President Ram Nath Kovind. He merely acted as a rubber stamp when Modi used his emergency powers to recommend an end to President’s rule in Maharashtra, which had been imposed on November 12. Rashtrapathi Bhavan also stayed awake all night on Friday and issued the orders at 5.37 am on Saturday.
The President is India’s highest constitutional authority. While he has no powers to turn down a recommendation of the prime minister, an attempt to question the government about its decision to invoke its emergency powers would have increased public faith in his office manifold.
The only redeeming aspect of the situation was the consistency with which the Supreme Court acted in ordering a floor test to determine the government’s majority. Though delayed by a day, a fact that did attract criticism, its order ensured the party in power had no time to induce MLAs from other parties, forcing the BJP to vacate.
However, if the Supreme Court is to do complete justice in this case, it is time it puts down in writing a definite framework that will avert a situation like Maharashtra in the future.