Has Shah’s ‘Chanakya Niti’ Met its Match in Pawar and Thackeray?

It took a month after Maharashtra Assembly election results were declared for the state to have its new government.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
It took a month after Maharashtra Assembly election results were declared on 24 October for the state to have its new government.
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It took a month after the Maharashtra Assembly election results were declared, on 24 October, for the state to have its new government.

When it eventually did, it was in a dramatic overnight operation which brought all key players under a cloud of suspicion – Governor BS Koshiyari for the haste he demonstrated in the wee hours of Saturday, 23 November morning in administering the oath of office, the Prime Minister’s Office for recommending the revocation of President’s Rule at an unearthly hour by resorting to emergency procedures, chief minister and BJP’s blue-eyed boy Devendra Fadnavis, and his surprise deputy from Nationalist Congress Party, Ajit Pawar, for setting aside serious differences and the latter’s corruption charges.

By noon on Sunday, when the Supreme Court deliberated the illegalities on a petition filed jointly by Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress, there was no sense of joy or achievement about this BJP-led government.

It was an unlikely combination of a chief minister and his deputy – vicious rivals turned uneasy friends – installed in office by stealth, in secrecy, and in complete contravention of democratic norms.

Tactical vs Moral

Its most basic aspects were unclear: Did Governor Koshiyari verify the numbers claimed by Fadnavis-Pawar? How did they reach the majority mark of 145 in the 288-member Assembly with only 105 MLAs of BJP? On what basis did Ajit Pawar promise 54 NCP legislators to Fadnavis given that nearly 50 of them demonstrated support to the NCP and its boss Sharad Pawar within hours?

These are tactical questions; the pertinent questions are the basic democratic and moral ones.

What authority could such a stealthily installed government have? Why, indeed, was stealth and skulduggery needed at all? What was the compelling factor for PM Narendra Modi to use Rule 12 of the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules which are invoked in “extreme urgency of unforeseen contingency” to recommend revocation of the President’s Rule? Why did President Kovind revoke it at 5:47 am, an unnatural hour for constitutional business by any standards? Why was the swearing-in kept such a top secret?

The answers have been blowing in the wind for months now.

Simply put, the BJP’s top leadership has made it a fundamental norm that the party must have its own or lead a government in states even when it does not have the numbers, and it is kosher to achieve this by any means fair or foul, bypassing morality, democratic norms and constitutional propriety.

From Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Bihar to Goa and Karnataka, its single-minded, blind and amoral pursuit of power was evident. But Maharashtra may have served up a match – a tough one from the looks of it.

The BJP’s methods included using its unparalleled resources, impudence to set government agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation on its targeted Opposition leaders, and relying on its reach in large sections of the media to craft a positive narrative.

Some senior journalists breathlessly anointed party president Amit Shah as “Chanakya” and his questionable methods as “Chanakya Niti”, termed the breaking up other parties and trading of MLAs as “masterstrokes”, and called the upstaging of state governments to grab power a “coup”.

It isn’t that other parties like the Congress had not used similar methods earlier but the BJP has made it the norm rather than the exception. It isn’t that the BJP did not try these methods in Maharashtra; they didn’t work as successfully till Saturday, 23 November, as they did in other states.

And then it was willing to ally with a section of the NCP which Modi had once labelled “Naturally Corrupt Party”.

Sharad Pawar & Uddhav Thackeray – What Stood Between BJP and Maharashtra

Two people, polar opposites and unlikely companions, stood between the BJP and power: NCP’s Sharad Pawar, who made this election one of prestige after Fadnavis broke his party pre-election and wrote him off, and Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray, who is fighting an existential battle for his party against BJP.

Since 24 October, theirs has been a battle of nerves: BJP against Pawar-Thackeray, who eventually managed to get a reluctant Congress on their side.

With great ideological flexibility and after many protracted meetings in Mumbai and New Delhi, this unnatural alliance called ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’, finally settled on a power-sharing agreement late on Friday evening. Sharad Pawar told the media that Thackeray would be the next chief minister.

Ajit Pawar – The Weak Link

Within hours, the BJP checkmated this with its midnight and pre-dawn drama that ended with the swearing-in of Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, Sharad’s nephew.

This time, it had broken not only a party but a close-knit family as well. Ajit Pawar, given the criminal cases against him, was the weak link in the Maha Vikas Aghadi. The impetuous and ambitious man seems to have succumbed to the BJP despite being part of all highly-confidential meetings of the Maha Vikas Aghadi.

Political rebellion within parties and political families is not new in Maharashtra – Pawar Sr himself had turned the tables on chief minister Vasantdada Patil in 1978 to assume power, the Thackerays have split, and other examples exist.

The Fadnavis-Pawar combination will undoubtedly do all it can to gather the numbers required for the floor test, including pressurising NCP MLAs and attempting to poach those from Sena and Congress.

Did the old warrior, Sharad, get blindsided and not see signs of his nephew’s crossover or is he in on this complicated power game, given his relationship with Modi and the 45-minute meeting between them in Parliament last week?

With Pawar, there are no certainties but the impression is that he was taken by surprise on Saturday morning and has since taken steps to repair the Maha Vikas Aghadi’s chances at power. How many of his MLAs stay loyal will be evident in the floor test in the Assembly.

As things stand, the Supreme Court has asked to see two letters on Monday morning – the letter issued by Governor Koshiyari to Fadnavis inviting him to form the government and the letter of support of MLAs given by Fadnavis – before it presumably recommends the floor test.

There was no reason why these letters could not have been shown on Sunday itself and the floor test ordered at the earliest. And, if floor test is the only legal remedy possible in this situation, there should have been no reason to delay it by even a day.

The time window allows the BJP – now Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar – to put the party’s tried-and-tested methods to work. A day or two in hand allows them to get MLAs to crossover.

So great is the apprehension of this happening in the Sena, NCP and Congress leadership that they checked their MLA contingents into resorts across Mumbai, cementing the trend of ‘resort politics’.

Should the MLAs fend off BJP’s methods to vote against Fadnavis-Pawar in the Assembly and should this result in the fall of this government-by-stealth, the BJP’s “Todfod Chanakya Niti” would be shown up for the morally hollow and democratically subversive method it is.

Should Fadnavis-Pawar somehow sail through, Maharashtra would have at least shown that it is possible to fight back.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler. She tweets @smrutibombay)

(Views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor agrees with the same.)

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