The Supreme Court on Monday said it would pronounce its verdict on the Maharashtra controversy at 10.30am on Tuesday.
A comment by one of the judges, Justice Sanjiv Khanna, recalling past apex court directives mandating floor tests “within 24 or 48 hours”, appeared to many as an indication that the bench might order a trial of strength by Wednesday or Thursday.
The bench of Justices N.V. Ramana, Ashok Bhushan and Khanna is hearing a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress petition to declare the formation of the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra as unconstitutional, or direct an immediate floor test.
Solicitor-general Tushar Mehta, as directed, placed before the court on Monday a copy of governor B.S. Koshyari’s letter inviting Fadnavis to form the government and another of the purported letter of support from 54 NCP legislators that party leader Ajit Pawar had produced.
Former attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Fadnavis, said the chief minister was keen on a floor test but argued that the court could not set a date or a deadline.
“A floor test is imperative, but can the court say whether the floor test should be held not after 10 days but 5 days, not 5 days but 4 days, not 4 days but 3 days?” he said.
He said the matter should be left to the pro-tem Speaker.
Mehta, representing the Centre and the state of Maharashtra, supported Rohatgi. “Can one party say, ‘We have somehow managed the flock together and if the floor test doesn’t take place in 24 hours, they’ll go away?’” he argued.
But Justice Khanna cited how the top court had in the past directed governments, including Karnataka’s last year, to hold floor tests within 24 or 48 hours.
“Leaving nothing to doubt, the question today is whether the chief minister enjoys majority support and for that there has to be a floor test,” he said.
Equine and equestrian analogies abounded during Monday’s hearing, dragged in by references to “horse-trading”, a euphemism for the practice of inducing lawmakers to change sides through allurement.
“This is not a case of horse-trading but a case of one entire stable going the other way,” Mehta said, referring to how the entire Sena had broken away from the BJP, and the entire NCP legislature party purportedly ditched the Congress and the Sena.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, representing the Sena, later retorted: “The jockey (Ajit) has run away but the horses are still here (that is, the NCP legislators are with party patriarch Sharad Pawar)”.
He said the Sena-NCP-Congress combine had the affidavits of 150-odd MLAs to prove its majority in the House of 288.
Mehta and Rohatgi insisted that it’s the other side that was engaging in “horse-trading” by trying to win over the NCP lawmakers who they claimed were loyal to Ajit.
Senior advocate Maninder Singh, appearing for Ajit, said his client was the leader of the NCP and portrayed the political controversy as a mere “quarrel in the family” that “will be resolved soon”.
“I am the NCP. The letter I gave is factually correct. There is nothing to contradict the letter. I was authorised as a legislative party leader by 54 MLAs of my party to take a decision on their behalf on government formation, on the day I gave that letter,” he was quoted by PTI.
“The quarrel I have within my family will be resolved soon but this petition must end now.”
Some 41 among the NCP legislators had, however, axed Ajit as legislature party leader on Saturday.
Singh said that since there was no dispute about the authenticity of the letter by 54 NCP legislators, the court must close the case.
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing the NCP and the Congress, said the MLAs’ letter merely reflected Ajit’s election as legislature party leader; it was not a letter of support for a BJP government.
He said that since neither side had any objections to a floor test, it should be held either “today or tomorrow”.
Singhvi threw down the gauntlet at the BJP, saying: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is you who don’t want the floor test immediately. Let us test our convictions on the floor of the House, not here (the Supreme Court).”