Uddhav, Sharad Pawar & MVA: Maharashtra Crisis Is a Lesson in Choosing ‘Friends’
In the end, neither the Congress nor the NCP turned out to be Uddhav's friends.
Unless a miracle restores the numbers and authority of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government of Maharashtra led by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, it’s likely to be a chapter in the state’s political history sooner or later. The crisis in the government is the result of the rebellion in the party Thackeray presides over, the Shiv Sena. With the rebel faction, led by Eknath Shinde, claiming more than 40 MLAs – higher than the two-thirds required to skirt the anti-defection law and establish itself as the “real” Shiv Sena – the stage is set for a hard battle not only to be in government but also to take over the political legacy of Sena founder and Uddhav’s father, the late Bal Thackeray.
For a man who seemed to be on the top of his game after the Assembly election result in October 2019 – from snapping ties with his party’s natural ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to forming an unnatural alliance with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, and become the Chief Minister without prior administrative experience – Uddhav Thackeray today looks like a lost leader, a lost man. He vacated the Chief Minister’s official residence, Varsha, earlier this week. If or when he steps down as Chief Minister – unless that miracle offers him a lifeline – he would want to reflect on what he walks away with.
With the rebel Shiv Sena faction, led by Eknath Shinde, claiming more than 40 MLAs, the stage is set for a battle not only to be in government but also to take over the legacy of Sena founder and Uddhav’s father, the late Bal Thackeray.
Uddhav should have realised, despite the new camaraderie of the Congress and the NCP, that he does not have loyal friends in the political spectrum.
The NCP, caught in a power struggle between Sharad Pawar and nephew Ajit Pawar, wanted power riding on the shoulders of whoever was willing to offer it, the BJP or the Sena.
In attempting to make the Sena more ideologically reasonable and less reliant on muscle power, Uddhav Thackeray gradually alienated the grassroots leaders who swore by a “jwalant Hindutva”.
BJP's Cheap Tactics to Wrest Power
The focus on Thackeray is not to take away from the shenanigans and cheap tactics that the BJP has been using to destabilise the government since the day it was formed. Every event, small or big, political or not, was shamelessly exploited by the BJP – led by Devendra Fadnavis, with his coterie of partymen and a pliant media – to cast aspersions on the government, corner it on the floor of the legislature and outside it, pressurise ministers and leaders through central investigating agencies, and so on.
Whether it was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide or the drug bust case against Aryan Khan (in which it was proved that BJP men acted as officials of the Narcotics Control Bureau), the BJP employed all sorts of tactics to pull down the Thackeray government.
Team Fadnavis, ably guided and supported by the party’s central leaders, believes that the 2019 mandate was for the party, even though it did not get a majority in the 288-member Assembly. They carry a sense of entitlement to power ever since. By hook or crook, through luring MLAs away, the BJP seems determined to wrest power.
There’s ample room to demonstrate that Shinde’s rebellion has the BJP’s blessings – and resources. Its template of such machinations and what’s euphemistically called ‘horse-trading’, now used in more than half a dozen states, seems to have become the default mode of doing politics. “Operation Lotus” or “Operation Kamala” as they are often called, seems to be accepted as legitimate politics albeit with some grumbling by opposition parties. That the BJP, with enormous resources and agencies at its command, repeatedly succeeds with this template does not make it legitimate or respectable. And it is not ‘Chanakyaniti’ either, as highly excited television anchors are wont to call it.
Where Thackeray Faltered
The BJP’s desperation to wrest power in Maharashtra comes from at least three reasons:
The stature of heading a government in Mumbai-Maharashtra for the economic and international attention it commands
The aspiration to win major civic elections in Mumbai, Thane and other cities later this year; and
The recent developments in the Bhima Koregaon case, in which there are increasing signs that the Pune Police, among other agencies, could well have infiltrated the devices of the accused – left-of-centre ideologues and activists – to plant evidence that implicated them, an act that could not have escaped the then-Chief Minister and Home Minister, Fadnavis.
That Thackeray did not, or could not, launch investigations into this and other cases that could have turned the heat on Fadnavis and other leaders of the state BJP tells its own story of how he handled power in the last two-and-a-half years. As he watches his power erode, both as the head of the government and as Shiv Sena chief, Thackeray might want to review what he walks away with.
Uddhav Had No Loyal Friends
The Sena, represented by the Thackerays, which now includes Uddhav as well as his son Aaditya, a Cabinet Minister, has been the bull’s eye for Team Fadnavis since the government took oath in November 2019. What did Uddhav Thackeray do to fortify himself, his government and his party? Uddhav should have realised, despite the new camaraderie of the Congress and the NCP, that he does not have loyal friends in the political spectrum.
The Congress and Sena have been bitter rivals for five decades and occupy different sides of the political spectrum; it’s a telling sign that the Gandhis did not embrace the MVA government as the party’s own.
The NCP, caught in a power struggle between Sharad Pawar and nephew (also state Home Minister) Ajit Pawar, wanted power riding on the shoulders of whoever was willing to offer it, the BJP or the Sena. Pawar Senior may have brought parties together as MVA, but it’s useful to remember that the party was more than willing to ally with Fadnavis for power, both after the 2014 and 2019 Assembly election results. While Pawar and Thackeray showered fulsome praise on each other in the last two-and-a-half years, the latter perhaps believed every word of what Maharashtra’s master strategist said. A gross mistake, as those who have seen Pawar closely, can tell. In the end, neither the Congress nor the NCP turned out to be Thackeray’s friends.
Maharashtra's Complex Political Landscape
Then, there’s the larger political landscape of Maharashtra, with four parties jostling for power. There isn’t enough room for the Big Four – the Congress, the NCP, the BJP and the Shiv Sena – and an assortment of smaller parties that matter in local elections and alliances. Of them, the BJP is clearly on a roll. In its first alliance with the Sena in 1990, it won 42 seats with a 10.7 per cent vote share (Sena got 52 seats with nearly 16 per cent); the BJP has bagged 105 seats with a 25.7 per cent vote share in 2019, while the Sena could manage only 56 seats with 16.4 per cent votes. The Congress, without much effort and minimal resources, could still get 44 seats in the last election, and the NCP is looking to expand.
It's clear as daylight that the Sena faces a threat to its very existence from the BJP as well as the NCP; in its shrinking or annihilation lies the future of both these parties, something that seems to have escaped Uddhav as he sought to remould and re-establish the Sena after his father’s demise. In terms of political machinations, he was clearly out-smarted by his foe BJP and friend NCP. This is borne out even in the lament that some rebels have put out: that the state administration seemed more responsive to the NCP and Congress despite having a Sena Chief Minister, that projects and allocations were managed easily by the two other parties in the MVA government than the Sena, and so on.
Even more crucial is the dent to the Sena. It’s true that in the past, the party weathered rebellions – a large one engineered by Sharad Pawar back in 1991 when Chhagan Bhujbal walked out of the Sena with 19 MLAs and several others since then as leaders left – and stood firm.
But Shinde's rebellion is different in that Uddhav Thackeray stands accused of being unreachable to MLAs and sainiks (Sena workers), of favouring son Aaditya, of being a puppet in the hands of the kitchen cabinet around him, and of diluting the party’s commitment to Hindutva.
Through the earlier rebellions, the late Thackeray did not face such accusations, especially the last one.
Grassroots Leaders Can't Be Alienated
In attempting to make the Sena more ideologically reasonable and less reliant on muscle power, more urbane as envisioned by Aaditya, Uddhav Thackeray gradually alienated the grassroots leaders who swore by a “jwalant Hindutva” (aggressive or belligerent Hindutva) and wore their unsophisticated selves on their sleeves. That he did not even keep his channel of communication with them open to get feedback or get them on board has come back to haunt him.
At the end of the day, political parties cannot be built or rebuilt from air-conditioned rooms with backroom boys determining their contours; it has to be done on the ground with the active collaboration of grassroots leaders, such as Eknath Shinde. Uddhav would have to accept that he was found negligent here. When ministers are kept off the dais but Aaditya is seen everywhere with the Chief Minister, there was bound to be resentment in the second rung; the BJP found and exploited this rupture.
Few Bought Uddhav's Brand of Hindutva
Lastly, Uddhav Thackeray painstakingly reiterated his – and the party’s – commitment to Hindutva recently. The difference between the Hindutvas propounded by the BJP and the Sena is the stuff of dissertations done by political science scholars. But suffice it to say, Thackeray’s brand looked confused or diluted to the party’s cadre and core constituency. This is not to suggest that the Sena must return to its “jwalant Hindutva” (that is now identified with the BJP anyway), but that the Hindutva card may have run its course for the Sena.
Regional parties that clearly articulate and identify with a state or community’s aspirations have a future in the political landscape now dominated by the BJP; West Bengal, Telangana and Tamil Nadu are some examples. Thackeray could have been smarter to embrace the card of Marathi sub-nationalism without stressing the Hindutva card that the BJP took away.
There’s much for him to course-correct even now, many lessons to walk away with.
(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist, writes on politics, cities, gender and media. She tweets @smrutibombay. is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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