Mukul Roy defection case leaves Trinamul in a bind
A division bench of the Calcutta High Court comprising Acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj on Tuesday iterated that the disqualification of an MLA under the anti-defection law rested with the office of the Speaker and not the court while hearing a PIL filed against the appointment of Mukul Roy as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Roy, elected on a BJP ticket from Krishnagar North, as the PAC chairman would have been in consonance with parliamentary traditions where the key position that holds the government accountable is entrusted to a member from the Opposition benches. Complications arose when Roy was welcomed back into the Trinamul fold with much fanfare on June 11, little over a month since Mamata Banerjee returned as chief minister for a third time.
Since then the question whether Roy is with the Trinamul or the BJP has been hanging in the office of the Assembly Speaker Biman Banerjee. Never before in over two decades since it came into being has the Trinamul faced such a quandary over engineering defections of which the party is a past master.
Trinamul insiders say any adverse ruling from the court on the appointment of the PAC chairman will bring a bad name to the government, a move that could have been easily avoided.
“If the PAC chairman has to be removed on the court’s ruling it won’t go well with Mamata di’s attempt to portray herself as a national leader. By convention the PAC chairman is from the Opposition, it would have been better to leave the post to the BJP,” said a Trinamul source.
Over the last couple of weeks, Roy has embarrassed himself and his party twice with his comment that the BJP stood a better chance of winning the bypolls in the state, including his own, though Roy is yet to resign as an MLA.
His son Shubhrangshu attributed the repeated faux pas to Roy’s mental state sine he was grieving the passing of his wife in a Chennai hospital over a month ago. Trinamul sources said Mamata had advised her oldest confidante in the party to get treated earliest after an MRI revealed the presence of a fluid in Roy’s brain.
Roy’s inclusion in the Trinamul has put both the government and the Speaker’s office under pressure.
“The problem is she cannot remove him now on health grounds as that would be construed as an escape route for the government to avoid legal embarrassment,” said a Trinamul legislator.
A section of the BJP pointed to a compromise candidate from the party who could have helped salvage the situation for the government, namely, the former chief economic adviser to the Union government and Balurghat MLA Ashok Lahiri, who would have been acceptable to Mamata as well.
“Lahiri would not have made life difficult for the government as PAC chairman. For the BJP getting the post was more important than anything else. Now it has become a prestige battle,” said a BJP leader.
There is a buzz that Mamata could try to lure Lahiri to the Trinamul fold to replace the incumbent state finance minister Amit Mitra, who is not keen on continuing in office.
The leader of the Opposition and BJP MLA from Nandigram Suvendu Adhikary is firm on taking the fight on the defection to the court if necessary. Speaker Biman Banerjee has scheduled the next hearing in the matter on September 17.
In the high court today, senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan appearing for the petitioner and BJP MLA Ambika Roy said the disqualification petition against Roy had been filed before the Speaker on June 17. “The Speaker has made an incorrect assumption that Mukul Roy belonged to the BJP at the time of filing his nomination papers for chairmanship (of the PAC),” said Vaidyanathan.
Roy was appointed chairman of the PAC on July 9.
Vaidyanathan reminded the bench that the Supreme Court had set a time limit of three months to decide cases of defection. In January 2020, a three-judge bench comprising Justice Rohinton F Nariman, Aniruddha Bose and V Ramasubramaniam had ruled that Speakers of Assemblies and the Parliament must decide on disqualification pleas within a period of three months.
“I will proceed on the assumption that Mukul Roy has defected from the BJP and has joined the TMC during my arguments. Thus, constitutional convention has been breached,” he said. “Disqualification petition filed in June should not be delayed unnecessarily.”
The court reminded him, “That is not before us, it is before the Speaker.”
The matter has been adjourned till September 6.