Ajit Pawar Causes NCP Split: Is Maharashtra ‘Drama’ Over Yet?
With “tu tu, main main” going on in Maharashtra, perhaps another act in the ‘theatre of the absurd’ lies ahead.
(This story was originally published on 09.11.19 and has been republished in light of the Maharashtra election power struggle.)
In the 30 years spent as natural allies given their affinity and espousal of Hindutva and the Ram Mandir, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena have had many episodes of estrangements, they even broke off five years ago, but never have they come as close to a divorce as now. Ironic considering that they contested the Maharashtra Assembly election together and won a clear majority of 161 of the 288 seats.
The numbers meant that they did not need the support of their rebels and independents to stake claim to form the government. Yet, 16 days later, Maharashtra does not have a government and they are on the brink of a political split. In doing so, they insulted the mandate they received, ignored governance especially during distress brought on by unseasonal rains, and squabbled like school children with Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray calling one another “liars”.
There’s a buzz already that the inexplicable delay in forming the government is part of the BJP’s grand strategy to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya.
Theatre of the Absurd in the Shadow of Ayodhya
This is the theatre of the absurd. The ball is now in Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari’s court. The options, according to constitutional experts, are clear: the Governor can invite the single-largest party which is the BJP (105 seats) and set it a time frame in to prove majority, if it fails then invite the next-largest party which is the Shiv Sena (56 seats) and expect it to cobble a majority together, then invite an alliance which has the numbers which could be Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (98 seats together). While the debate around President’s Rule in Maharashtra has gathered steam, it is unlikely to happen before these options have been exhausted.
There’s a buzz already that the inexplicable delay in forming the government is part of the BJP’s grand strategy to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya. Maharashtra, which saw chilling violence after the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992 with more than 800 people killed in Mumbai alone, remains without a mandated government in place to comprehensively deal with the violence should it occur, and could prove beneficial to the BJP’s polarising ideology should Maharashtra be forced into another Assembly election soon.
Be that as it may, the last fortnight has a few inescapable take-aways.
BJP Not Invincible
The BJP’s juggernaut was stopped in Maharashtra and by its own ally. Clearly, the BJP is not the indomitable and unshakable party that it professes to be. Its failure to form the government was a far cry from the over-confidence its leaders displayed all along with Fadnavis claiming “Mee Punha Yaeen” (I will definitely return). It won fewer seats than it did five years ago – 105 now to 122 in 2014 – which it claims is because it contested with Sena. But in the pre-result days, BJP’s leaders said the alliance would bag 220 to a breath-taking 250 with it leaving all parties behind.
What’s clear is that the BJP came to believe in its unchallengeable presence across Maharashtra, in its own myth of “good governance” which was primarily mega project-led investment with little succour to farmers or urban middle classes, in the power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to do emotion-based election rallies and party president Amit Shah’s famed election machinery – and in the willingness of voters to buy into all of this a second time around.
The mandate means voters did not hand over total power to the BJP, did not give their approval to its tactic of importing key leaders from Congress and NCP as its contestants, did not want untrammelled exercise and exhibition of power. Maharashtra has shown that the BJP can be shown its place – one party in a political landscape that nurtures other ideologies and parties.
‘Todfod’ Chanakyaneeti Does not Always Succeed
As the alliance teetered on the brink of the final break-up – neither has called off the alliance yet, Sena’s minister in the Modi government has not resigned – it was a tacit admission that the BJP was not able to cobble together the numbers despite having the largest war-chest as it did in Karnataka, Goa, Manipur and other states. The Todfod Chanakyaneeti – to break other parties to form government – was at play in Maharashtra too. Congress leader Vijay Wadettiwar alleged that the BJP had offered “large amounts” (the buzz was Rs 30-50 crore per elected representative) which prompted the party to move its MLAs to Jaipur to pushback such poaching.
There has been talk of Sena and NCP MLAs being identified too; nothing would have suited the BJP better than to break the Sena and manage the numbers required. Sena MLAs too were herded into a Mumbai hotel to keep them under watch. Despite the BJP’s best attempts and rigorous application of its unethical formula, MLAs of other parties had not succumbed till Friday when the term of the previous Assembly expired and Fadnavis had to resign. The ‘Todfod Chanakyaneeti’, clearly, has its restrictions. And the Marathi pride seems to have derailed it.
Limitations of the Fadnavis Pattern of Politics
For all his amiability and clean image, Fadnavis is not the politician he used to be while in the opposition; he has carefully moulded himself into the Modi Model since he was chosen to be the chief minister five years ago. In administration, Fadnavis relied on a select group of bureaucrats and set up systems with little or no political accountability to “get projects done” as Modi had done in Gujarat and later in New Delhi. This did not quite work for Fadnavis in Maharashtra.
Politically too, Fadnavis took the route of marginalising veteran leaders of his party – all senior to him and his mentors (LK Advani will find this familiar), denying tickets to some of them in this election which sparked off an internal uproar but no one took him head on in the belief that he has the approval of Modi-Shah in these games. In the alliance too, Fadnavis adopted the model in which an ally is treated as an expendable route to power and its diminished place in the hierarchy made abundantly clear. He and his government were widely seen as displaying the arrogance of power.
Eventually, as the Maharashtra impasse refused to yield a government, Fadnavis was left to his own steam; neither Modi nor Shah intervened or even once came to Mumbai to show him support and work things out. The use-and-discard policy which is a key part of the Modi Model has a popular Marathi line “kaama purta mama”.
Good Rajneeti Means Treating Allies With Respect
In the times of Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan, the BJP-Sena relationship had hiccups too but it did not come to a divorce. The last five-six years have changed the complexion of this old alliance in a way that Uddhav Thackeray, Sena’s president, has seen his and his party’s position being deliberately diminished in keeping with the BJP’s “shat pratishat BhaJaPa”. The last fortnight was the climax.
The break point came a week after the result when Fadnavis said in a press conference that there was no discussion between him, Thackeray and Shah about equal sharing of the chief minister’s post. It showed Thackeray to be a liar. He said as much in his Friday’s press conference. The Sena widely spread the clip of the press conference post the trio’s meeting to prove its point about the 50:50 formula. It now sees duplicity in being denied that.
Worse, it sees deceit in Shah-Fadnavis’ backtracking. Perhaps, the BJP had promised the CM’s post for 2.5 years in the belief that it would not have to make good its word. Significantly, Shah has not yet spoken about this. The Sena’s hardening of stance may also have something to do with the advice it received from political consultant Prashant Kishore, the man credited with much in the BJP, for this seems a zero-sum game for the party.
Don’t Dismiss the Opposition Before an Election
One of the memorable outcomes of this Assembly election is the spirited campaign put up by NCP chief Sharad Pawar, even advising and leading the Congress which he quit 20 years ago for the second time in his life. His party got the numbers that puts it in a position to be king-maker if he so wishes – a far cry from being written off less than eight weeks back.
The Congress is in a bind: To share power with a political adversary against the BJP or to stay out of all power combinations and allow the BJP a free run.
The turning point was the Enforcement Directorate case in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam in which Pawar was shown as an accused despite the original police FIR not carrying his name. This was a political move. Pawar, nearly 80 years old, turned it to his advantage, took the ED head on, created a sympathy wave in his favour, and turned the mood in the opposition. His rally during hard rain in Satara – where Udayanraje Bhonsle, the 14th direct descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji and NCP MP quit to join the BJP – crystallised that mood and helped the NCP and Congress the 54 and 44 seats.
Modi had once hailed Pawar as his political guru, they displayed their bromance in Baramati, and the NCP had extended support to Fadnavis in 2014 to form the government. The ED case turned it all. Pawar now represents the truism that an old warrior is never done with a battle till the battle is over.
Dharm Sankat for the Congress
In the last fortnight when Thackeray refused to speak with Fadnavis to stake claim to government, there has been immense pressure on Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi to give her nod for a Sena-led or Sena-partnered government. Rajya Sabha MP Hussain Dalwai, a veteran Congressman, wrote to her, Maharashtra’s leaders have tried to make out a case for this, Pawar met her twice to attempt a change of mind.
But Gandhi seems to be firm that the Congress can have no truck with the Sena and any attempt at this will eventually bring it – and her – discredit and damage. Pawar has repeatedly said that the mandate for NCP is to sit on the opposition benches but has not been averse to discussions with Sena leader Sanjay Raut.
The idea for the unlikely loose alliance between Sena, NCP and Congress is with the explicit purpose of denying the BJP another term in power in Maharashtra in the belief that this could be the turning point on a larger scale. The Congress is in a bind: To share power with a political adversary against the BJP or to stay out of all power combinations and allow the BJP a free run. It is not a happy decision to make.
The Maharashtra story is not over yet. Another act in the theatre of the absurd lies ahead.
(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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