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The road appears to have been cleared for the election of Uddhav Thackeray, the chief minister of Maharashtra, as a member of the Legislative Council. The Election Commission has announced the schedule for the election to nine seats of the House which fell vacant on April 24, 2020.

It will start with the filing of nominations from May 4 and conclude with polling and counting on May 21. The entire election process is expected to be completed by May 26, just a day ahead of the May 27 deadline.

Thackeray was sworn in as the chief minister on November 28, 2019. He was not a member of either House of the legislature of Maharashtra at that time. Article 164 (4) provides that a minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of the legislature of the state shall, at the expiration of that period, cease to be a minister.

Thus, the Constitution allows a non-legislator to occupy a post in the council of ministers, including the office of the chief minister, only for six months.

That gave Thackeray time until May 28 to become an MLA or MLC, and he was hoping to get elected to the Maharash­tra Legis­lative Council. The members of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly were scheduled to elect nine MLCs on March 26, but the election was postponed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In view of this development, the state cabinet met on April 9 under the chairmanship of Ajit Pawar, the deputy chief minister, and recommended to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari that he nominate Thackeray to the Legislative Council against one of the two vacancies of nominated members available due to the resignation of two NCP legislators who had joined the BJP before last year’s assembly polls.

Article 171 (5) of the Constitution allows the governor to nominate to the Legislative Council a certain number of “persons having special knowledge or practical experience in respect of such matters as the following, namely—literature, science, art, cooperative movement and social service”.

The governor took his time to decide the matter, creating a bit of uncertainty and even panic as D-Day was approaching with no sign of the pandemic abating. Perhaps the reason for the governor’s reluctance to take a decision was the fact that he had earlier turned down the request of the NCP to fill the two vacancies in December 2019 on the ground that the residual term (which was to end on June 6, 2020) of those seats was less than six months. Therefore, to now fill one of those vacancies for a period of just over a month by nominating Thackeray would not have been in order.

After consultations at various levels and a request from the chief minister himself, the governor and chief secretary of Maharashtra wrote to the Election Commission that it was feasible to hold the elections, the pandemic notwithstanding. They requested it to fix a fresh date for the election to the nine Legislative Council seats.

A chief minister, or even the prime minister for that matter, upon being appointed and searching for a seat to get into the legislature/parliament, is not a singularity in India. As far as prime ministers are considered, in 2004, Dr Manmohan Singh, the surprise candidate for the post, was not a member of either House of Parliament. He was, in due course, elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam. More than a decade earlier, PV Narasimha Rao, on account of a sudden turn of events, found himself in the same unenviable position. He was subsequently elected to the Lok Sabha from Nandiyal, a seat vacated by a party loyalist.

As far as chief ministers are concerned, there have been many such instances. Most recently, Kamal Nath, the former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, was an MP when he was called upon to head Madhya Pradesh in 2018. He sought to get elected to the state Legislative Assembly in 2019 from Chhindwara constituency, helpfully vacated by his party MLA.

The current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, too was an MP and was later elected to the state Legislative Council.

In 2012, a similar situation arose when Akhilesh Yadav, a Lok Sabha MP from Kannauj, was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He chose to be­come a member of the state Legislative Council. Mayawati, the chief minister before him (2007-12) too was a member of the Legislative Council. Nitish Kumar, three times chief minister of Bihar, has all along been a member of the state Legislative Council. And now, Uddhav Thackeray has decided to take the same route to legislative legitimacy.

Thus, it would appear that chief ministers have a penchant for indirectly entering the portals of the state legislature rather than contesting elections to the state legislative assemblies. But this option, or luxury so to speak, is available only to a very few. Till recently, only seven out of 29 states had a bicameral legislature, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. The Legislative Council of Jammu and Kashmir was abolished in 2019 when the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories, bringing down the number of states to 28.

Article 169 of the Constitution provides for the creation and abolition of Legislative Councils in states. It lays down that Parliament may by law provide for the creation of a Council in a state where one does not exist or for the abolition of the existing Legislative Council if the Legislative Assembly of the state passes a resolution to that effect by a special majority. Such a majority will be of the total membership of the assembly and not less than two-thirds of the members of the assembly present and voting.

It is ironical that while, on the one hand, several chief ministers are and have been members of Legislative Councils, the ruling parties of various states have often chosen either not to establish Legislative Councils or abolished them post-haste. After Independence, Legislative Councils were abolished, following initial establishment, in Punjab (1970), Tamil Nadu (1986) and West Bengal (1969).

In 2010, subsequent to the passing of a resolution by the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu for the revival of the Legislative Council, Parliament enacted a law for the purpose. However, before the Act could be notified, the new Legislative Assembly (with a change in the ruling party) passed another resolution in 2011 seeking the abolition of the proposed Legislative Council.

Accordingly, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council (Repeal) Bill, 2012 was also introduced in the Rajya Sabha on May 4, 2012, as a measure of abundant precaution, perhaps. Tamil Nadu, therefore, at present, does not have a Legislative Council.

The case of the Legislative Council of Andhra Pradesh is, of course, an example par excellence. When, on January 2, 2020, the state assembly adopted a statutory resolution recommending abolition of the Council to Parliament, ironically, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, had taken a leaf out of the book of late NT Rama Rao, the founder of the Telugu Desam Party, which is the main party in the Opposition at present. A greater irony lay in the fact that the Legislative Council was subsequently revived in 2007 by no other person than YS Raja­sekhara Reddy, father of Jagan Mohan Reddy.

Be that as it may, the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with the election schedule in different parts of the world, apart from Maharashtra. Local elections have been halted in France and Indonesia. Bolivia’s electoral court has announced that it would postpone the country’s election, due in May 2020, following the 14-day national quarantine due to Covid-19.

The campaigns of various candidates in the race for the post of US president (election to which is due later this year) have been cancelled. It has even been insinuated that China has unleashed the Covid-19 pandemic in order to scuttle US President Donald Trump’s chances for a second term. On the other hand, South Korea held elections for 300 seats of its National Assembly in April 2020 without a hitch. Voters wore masks and stood at least a metre apart. They had their temperatures taken, disinfected their hands and wore plastic gloves.

­However, as far as Maharashtra is concerned, it was ironical that the elections to the vacancies in the Legislative Council were considered crucial for the management of the same pandemic, which had been the cause of its postponement. However, as the proverb goes: “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Covid-19 has literally knocked at the door of Matoshree.

—The writer is a former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha, and a retired IAS officer of the AP cadre

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