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Maharashtra‘s Political Muck Leaves a Stain on President’s Office 

Maharashtra crisis: Rarely has Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reputation been besmirched in so incontrovertible a manner. 

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image of Ajit Pawar (L), Sharad Pawar (centre), Devendra Fadnavis (R), used for representational purposes.
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Some words are not adequately translatable. Their meaning is determined – and often expanded and sharpened – by who used it, when, in what context, and against whom. The Marathi word ‘Mee Panaa’ is one of them. In direct translation, it means ‘egoism’. But when an angry Uddhav Thackeray used it in his first joint press conference with Sharad Pawar in Mumbai on 22 November, on the eve of the Governor-aided midnight coup in Maharashtra, as an accusation against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, ‘Mee Panaa – ‘arrogance’, ‘humiliation of alliance partners’, ‘brazen misuse of power against opponents’, and ‘we alone have the right to rule, by hook or by crook’.

Thus, with one word, mundane in any ordinary situation, but inflammable in the context in which it was spoken, Thackeray explained his main reason for burning his party’s 30-year-old alliance with the BJP. With that single word, he also drew a personality sketch of the two top men running the government at the Centre.

That the top leaders had ‘contempt’ for alliance partners who sought dignity and equality, and showed a proclivity to misuse the coercive instruments of state power against political rivals, had a consequence beyond Maharashtra.

These ‘vices’, unless curbed, could well be among the chief causes of the downfall of the BJP government in New Delhi, perhaps even before 2024.

Three-Party Coalition: Not the Govt People of Maharashtra Voted For

Thackeray and his party, the Shiv Sena, are by no yardstick, repositories of political virtue. The Shiv Sena’s abominable quality of governance in Mumbai, the general haughty conduct of Shiv Sainiks, the party’s ideology of aggressive Hindutva (which will surely get diluted, now that Thackeray will be sharing power with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party) are all well known. Among the Shiv Sena’s vices is also its political opportunism. After all, the mandate given by the people of Maharashtra in the recently-concluded assembly election was for the pre-poll alliance of the BJP and the Sena. Together, they commanded a clear majority.

The Sena’s split with its own senior partner, and now its alliance with the two parties (Congress and NCP) – against whom it fought the elections – certainly raises serious questions about its commitment to political morality.

The democratic legitimacy of the new three-party coalition is also under a cloud, because this is not the government the people of Maharashtra voted for.

Nevertheless, the Shiv Sena, which was the BJP’s oldest and (ideologically) closest partner in one of the most important states in the country, has today emerged as the tiger that roared, and successfully dented reputations of the two top invincible-looking leaders of India. The current political drama in Maharashtra has ended with BJP as the loser, and the Sena as the winner. Even though the Shiv Sena is guilty of political opportunism, it is the BJP that has potentially invited greater disgrace. Almost all right-thinking people in the country are blaming the BJP, and not so much the Shiv Sena, for the birth of a seemingly ‘unnatural’ three-party coalition.

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Contempt of Constitution & Democracy

Why did this happen? The answer lies, above all, in the apt word ‘Mee Pana’ that Thackeray used to characterise Modi and Shah – egoism made worse by the arrogance of power, and compounded further by the readiness to resort to the most venal means to beat one’s opponents. This is evident from their ‘direct’ role in the ‘midnight coup’ in Maharashtra, which collapsed only because the Supreme Court delivered — coincidentally, on Constitution Day (26 November) — a ruling that frustrated their nefarious plan.

Once the Shiv Sena ditched the BJP, the Modi-Shah duo decided to prevent, by whatever means possible, the formation of a Shiv Sena-led government in Mumbai.

The ‘midnight coup’ they plotted, in order to re-install Devendra Fadnavis as the state’s chief minister, has no parallel in the annals of Indian democracy for its sheer contempt for the Constitution and democratic principles. They even ordered the President of India and the Governor of Maharashtra to do their bidding on the night of 22 November. Shockingly, they succeeded.

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President’s Rule Lifted in Maharashtra at 5:47 AM: An Act of ‘Stealth’?

In the architecture of the Republic of India, ‘Rashtrapati’ and ‘Rajyapal’ are mandated to serve as the ‘chowkidars’ (protectors) of the Constitution. But in Maharashtra, sadly, the two ‘chowkidars’ were made to collude in the ‘chori’ – illicit capture of power by the BJP. President Ramnath Kovind did not ask Prime Minister Modi why he did not convene a meeting of his Cabinet to recommend the lifting of President’s Rule in the state, why he was invoking a provision that ought to be used only in rare and emergency-like situations, and why he was asked to sign on the dotted line in the middle of the night.

Not only was the President’s Rule lifted at the unearthly hour of 5.47 am, but Governor Koshyari was commanded to quickly (stealthily would be a more appropriate word) administer oaths of office to BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis and NCP’s Ajit Pawar, as chief minister and deputy chief minister respectively.

When the people of Maharashtra, and the rest of India, woke up on the morning of 23 November, they were stunned by the most unexpected turn of events.

The events of the previous day – all them covered widely on TV channels and social media – had made it unmistakably clear that the NCP and the Congress had decided to ally with the Shiv Sena to stake their joint claim to form the government.

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In Maharashtra, ‘Deception’ Was the Name of the Game

NCP President Sharad Pawar, who, at 79, has emerged as the ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ of non-BJP politics, had even announced that the new government would be formed under the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray.

Yet, Fadnavis had suddenly and mysteriously found an ally in the very leader of the NCP, Ajit Pawar, whom he had previously threatened, on multiple occasions, to send to jail for alleged involvement in a Rs 70,000-crore corruption scandal. This act of political immorality paled in significance, when it came to light that Fadnavis’ claim was backed by a ‘fraudulent’ letter of support from Ajit Pawar. That letter had not authorised him, as the leader of the legislative party of the NCP, to pledge the support of its 54 MLAs for the formation of a BJP-led government. This ought to have been clear to both Fadnavis and Governor Koshyari at first glance.

Shockingly, the Governor accepted this deceitful letter as legitimate, and administered the oaths of office to Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar.

In other words, ‘deception’ was the basis on which the new government was formed. The fact that the deception had no legs to stand on became instantly clear when the Supreme Court ordered a floor test the very next day, with two all-important conditions – no secret ballot, and live-telecast of the voting.

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Descent Into Darkness?

In one stroke, the apex court prevented the possibility of the BJP indulging in a repeat of its own unique brand of ‘horse-trading’ – ‘Operation Kamal’. Had the judiciary not intervened in this manner, Maharashtra would have most certainly seen a repeat of what the BJP had done in Karnataka – luring away Opposition MLAs.

The dust will settle down on the Maharashtra fiasco in a few days.

But it has given rise to grave questions not only on the nature of the country’s top leadership, but, more importantly, on the debasement of the offices of the President of India and the Governor of Maharashtra.

The country is not unfamiliar with the phenomenon of the partisan functioning of governors in the past. But rarely has the reputation of Rashtrapati Bhavan been besmirched in so incontrovertible a manner. If the president leans towards becoming a ‘rubber stamp’ of the prime minister, India’s proud democracy may possibly descend into authoritarianism.

(The author served as a close aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. He is the founder of ‘FORUM FOR A NEW SOUTH ASIA – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni.gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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