Supreme Court directs Maharashtra Assembly Speaker to conclude disqualification proceedings of Shiv-Sena members by 31 December 2023

Disqualification proceedings of Nationalist Congress Party members are to be concluded by 31 January 2024.

On 30 October 2023, the Supreme Court set two deadlines for Maharashtra Legislative Assembly speaker Rahul Narwekar to complete the disqualification proceedings of members of legislative assemblies from the Shiv Sena and National Congress Party. The three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, with Justices J.B. Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra directed that the proceedings for Shiv Sena MLAs should be decided by 31 December 2023. For the NCP members, the deadline was set for 31 January 2024. 

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal appeared for both Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar’s NCP camps. Senior Advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Neeraj Kishan Kaul appeared on behalf of Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena and Ajit Pawar’s NCP camps. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appeared on behalf of the Speaker. 

Deadline to be set considering date of filing of petition or concerns of impending elections?

The three-judge division bench of the Supreme Court gave a one-month gap between the deadlines due to the difference in the date of filing of the petitions before the Supreme Court. Sunil Prabhu, a member of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena faction, had filed a petition in July 2023. Jayant Patil from the Sharad Pawar-led NCP faction filed a disqualification petition in September 2023. 

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal was sceptical. He argued that the disqualification proceedings for the NCP MLAs should be decided sooner because the “election dates are the same for all.” This received severe protests from Senior Advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Neeraj Kishan Kaul who contended that the issues are distinct. They further highlighted that the NCP petition was filed in September 2023, unlike the Shiv Sena petition. Sibal pushed for a 15 January 2023 date but conceded after CJI Chandrachud pointed out that the Speaker needs “reasonable time” to consider the disqualification petitions of the NCP camp. 

CJI Chandrachud: Disqualification proceedings cannot be delayed until state assembly elections

Taking note of the delay in the disqualification proceedings, CJI Chandrachud stated, “We don’t want these proceedings to keep wrangling till elections are announced.” This response was prompted by an affidavit filed by the secretary of the Maharashtra Legislature Secretariat, which indicated that the “secretariat would be closed” during the Diwali Vacations, commencing on 10 November 2023 to 16 November 2023. Further, the affidavit also highlighted the closure of the secretariat during the Winter session of the Assembly, scheduled from 7 December 2023 to 20 December 2023. The affidavit claimed that due to these delays, the disqualification petitions would be decided by 29 February 2024. 

The Court firmly asserted that such procedural delays “cannot be permitted.” Mehta argued that the Speaker has no “difficulty” except during the Diwali break and the Winter session. 

CJI Chandrachud, in the oral order, noted that the Supreme Court has “repeatedly furnished opportunities” for the Speaker to conclude the proceedings under the Tenth Schedule. He further observed that the “sanctity of the Tenth Schedule has to be maintained” by the Speaker. The Tenth Schedule of the Constitution provides grounds for disqualification due to the defection of MLAs from one party to another. The Speaker acts in the quasi-judicial capacity of a “Tribunal” while considering disqualification petitions. 

Previously, on 17 October 2023, the Supreme Court had given the Speaker “a final opportunity to prescribe a realistic time schedule for the disposal of the disqualification petitions.” The affidavit of the secretariat was in response to this direction of the Supreme Court.