The Maharashtra Legislative Assembly witnessed a high-voltage drama on Thursday, with the Opposition and the ruling benches crossing swords over the passage of a politically sensitive bill. While the majority enjoyed by the BJP in the lower house ensured that the legislation was passed, the Opposition ensured that the ruling side had to sweat it out.
Last December, ahead of local body polls across the state, the Fadnavis government had tightened the anti-defection law for corporators of urban local bodies, or elected zilla parishad and panchayat samiti members, proposing a six-year disqualification for those found switching loyalties.
The disqualification power was vested in the civic commissioner in the case of a corporation and the collector’s office in the case of the smaller urban and rural local bodies.
On Thursday, Maharashtra’s Rural Development Minister Pankaja Munde introduced a legislation for further amendment to the modification. While the previous provision was that the commissioner or the collector’s decision in this regard was considered as final and could only be challenged in the court, the fresh modification permitted the state government to have a say in the process. A provision was introduced permitting a person aggrieved by the decision of the commissioner or the collector to file an appeal before the state government within a month.
But when the legislation was taken up for discussion in the lower House, the Opposition raised a ruckus, alleging that the new provision was open-ended and could be politically exploited. Former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan, former NCP ministers Shashikant Shinde and Bhaskar Jadhav, and Congress’s Jaykumar Gore were among those who aggressively opposed the provision. During the discussion, the Opposition kept demanding that the government should at least specify a fixed timeline within which the government would have to decide any such appeal, with their member apprehending deliberate delay in matters where the ruling side could benefit out of a disqualification.
But Munde, while replying to the queries and the demands raised, justified the provision, stating that the demand for introduction of the timeline within which such appeals must be disposed of could be considered while formulating rules subsequently.
But the Opposition was not satisfied with the minister’s reply. With ruling benches empty, it sensed an opportunity, and demanded that the bill be put to vote. Besides Chavan, NCP’s Ajit Pawar and Dilip Walse-Patil were among the front benchers on the Opposition side who pressed for a vote.
Assembly Speaker Haribhau Bagade, while seen assuring Opposition members that their demand for a vote will be considered at first, announced the bill as passed almost immediately thereafter. This enraged the Opposition side. A visibly angry Pawar led MLAs who stormed into the well of the house. Pawar was seen aggressively protesting against the decision of the dais. Other Opposition MLAs joined him too.
Normalcy was restored to the proceedings after Bagade agreed to put the bill to vote. To avoid an embarrassment, the ruling side had to hurriedly summon its MLAs who were absent from the House. After sounding the bell informing all members that a “poll” was being held as per norm, the Vidhan Sabha’s entry and exit gates were closed. In the end, the ruling side won the vote comfortably with 87 members, including Shiv Sena MLAs, supporting the bill. The Opposition could cobble up just 34. But the face-off in the lower house also indicated that the government may find it difficult to seek a smooth passage of the bill in the Upper House where the Opposition members are still in majority.
There were also signs that the ruling side hadn’t anticipated such a showdown. Even Munde appeared unprepared to face a poll. In fact, just before the gates were closed for the voting, Munde stood up from her chair and began walking out before she was stopped by the Speaker. While she indicated that she just wanted to step outside for a minute, the Speaker pointed out to the voting procedure which disallowed any member participating in the vote to move out during the process. The Speaker was also seen shouting out instructions regarding the voting process to some ruling-side legislators.