There was controversy in the Maharashtra assembly on Wednesday as the Devendra Fadnavis government won trust by voice vote, and five Congress MLAs were suspended for two years for manhandling the Governor.
SEEMA CHISHTI explains the issues involved.
What is ‘division’ in legislature-speak?
To call for ‘division’ is to ask the Speaker to not go by general approval of the House, but to establish clearly, in numerical terms, where each member stands on the issue/vote under debate.
What forms can a trust vote take?
A voice vote is routine at first. Then a call for division could lead to a show of hands (hands are counted) or a vote by slips or electronic voting, if the facility is available in the House.
When is division a must?
When a constitutional amendment is voted upon. But this is relevant only for Parliament and not state assemblies.
Should there have been a division in Maharashtra?
When a party/coalition doesn’t have clear majority, no letters of support from Independents or other parties have been furnished to the Governor, and when large parties (like the Shiv Sena and NCP) are in the grey zone, division of votes is a legitimate expectation. But the call for division should have come immediately after the Speaker said “the ayes have it”.
So, what exactly happened?
Had Congress or Sena asked the Speaker for division immediately after conclusion of the voice vote, he couldn’t have refused. The BJP says they did not do so; Sena and Congress say BJP took up voice vote without warning — immediately after the Speaker was declared elected unanimously. Sena wanted the post of Opposition leader in the assembly, and alleges the voice vote was hustled through. But the fact probably is that BJP didn’t want to be seen taking NCP support openly, and Congress and Sena were worried they might lose MLAs in case of a division.
What is the idea of ‘restoring order’?
It varies. Marshals, who physically restrain or remove members, have been called in to assemblies routinely by governments lacking a simple majority. The violence in the UP assembly in October 1997 made the idea of using marshals tempting. In Parliament, the use of marshals has been limited. The first recorded instance was in 1962 in Rajya Sabha. More recently, marshals were used during the passage of the women’s reservation Bill in Rajya Sabha in 2009. In Lok Sabha, marshals “escorted” MPs out during the Telangana pepper spray episode.
What recourse is available to parties/legislators who feel they are victims of an unconstitutional process?
They can go to the Governor, who can theoretically call for the House to be reconvened and the process repeated. Governors can also make suggestions to the Speaker or ruling party, as they have done — sometimes controversially — in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Karnataka in the past two decades. The aggrieved party can go to the President, which has symbolic value, and also approach the courts. There has been a strong view that courts should not interfere in proceedings in legislatures and with decisions of Speakers; however, the courts did set a time and date for a vote in Jharkhand in 2005. And in Delhi recently, the Supreme Court heard a petition over government formation and dissolution of the House.
Is this the first time that MLAs have been suspended even before House proceedings have started fully?
No. In October 2009, when the Congress-NCP government was voted in, an SP MLA took oath in the assembly in Hindi (and not Marathi). Four MLAs of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena got physically violent, and were suspended for four years.