23 - 02 - 2020

Maharashtra pact gives a fillip to Oppn

There  are several takeaways from the tortuous month-long battle for power in Maharashtra, as Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray takes over as the state’s new Chief Minister.The October election had indicated a mood change in Maharashtra, enough, as it turned out, to pose a problem for the BJP, though its alliance with the Shiv Sena had won a majority.

It will remain a hypothetical question as to how well the BJP would have done had it gone it alone in the elections. But, certainly, it was a comedown from the BJP’s earlier showing in the Lok Sabha elections, and not up to its own expectations of over 200 seats. The mood shift was not really a rejection of the Fadnavis government, but it did constitute a ‘semi anti-incumbency’.

Had the polls not thrown up enough seats for the NCP (54) and Congress (44), which were down and out at the start of the campaign, it would not have been possible for Uddhav Thackeray to walk away from the alliance, as he did. The shift was enough to give an alternative opening to an unhappy Shiv Sena, which has feared a slow takeover of its base by the BJP. Uddhav’s rapport with NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and that the two stuck together through the ups and downs of the last few days, scripted a success story. The pact to explore government formation, if the numbers allowed it, some say, was forged even before the results were out. Pawar had fought back with all his might, ever since the ED notice to him. 

The Maharashtra outcome has underscored a deepening of the fault lines in the NDA. Its allies are no longer as comfortable with the BJP as was the case earlier, or as willing to lump what they viewed as the BJP’s arbitrary decision-making. They are beginning to speak up. The Akali Dal, unhappy with the BJP’s refusal to leave three or four seats for them in Haryana, which it says it had been promised, indicated that the party may also be in the ‘departure lounge’. The JD (U) called for ‘introspection’ by the BJP in an obvious flexing of its muscles with 2020 elections staring them in the face. Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP is going it alone in the electoral battle under way in Jharkhand as is the other BJP ally, AJSU. Somewhere, all of them sense the shifting winds.

Curiously, the BJP’s national leadership had not intervened to placate the Sena, soon after the elections as in Haryana. This was surprising since the BJP leadership had been successful in persuading the Sena to agree to a pre-poll alliance. And to convince the party to settle for a fewer number of seats (124) than the BJP (162), was no mean achievement. The BJP brass, it is possible, wanted to chasten its state leaders, while calculating that the Sena had no other option but to return to the negotiating table. They had not banked on a softening by Sonia Gandhi nor a determined Sharad Pawar living up to his ‘Maratha strongman’ image.

The moving away of the Shiv Sena, not the easiest of allies, could turn out to be a defining moment for the NDA. For, the Sena is the BJP’s oldest ally, which stood by it when everybody else treated it as a political untouchable. It is later that other groupings joined hands with it. Only time will tell whether the Sena’s departure will trigger a reverse movement and lead to a cracking up of the NDA. Or, will it chasten the BJP enough to put correctives in place, which the party has been known to do?

It is not just a case of the Shiv Sena delinking from the BJP, with which it has also shared an ideological bond for three decades. It has gone a step farther and joined hands with its opponents, giving a decimated Opposition a new wind, and that too in the country’s second largest and financially most important state.

The NCP, Shiv Sena and Congress, though unlikely partners, have been able to cobble together an alternative government, because of a common need to push back a resurgent BJP gaining at their expense. In the process, they may move towards the formulation of an alternative narrative, which has been missing so far, to be able to counter the BJP’s potent theme of Hindu nationalism which has held sway in the last five years. 

It is early days yet, but the Sena-NCP-Congress’ ‘new’ narrative could come to encompass a soft (inclusive) Hinduness (most parties have, after all, accepted a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya). An association with the Sena may have a downside for the Congress but it could help the GOP acquire more of a pro ‘Hindu’ image in a polity that has got so ‘Hinduised’. The three parties have made it clear that they are going to focus on bread and butter issues agitating people everywhere — joblessness coupled with farmers’ distress which obviously took its toll in the Assembly elections as compared to the Lok Sabha polls held only five months earlier. They can also be expected to weave these around the theme of sub-nationalism, like reservation of jobs for the locals. 

Sharad Pawar invoked Chhatrapati Shivaji and Marathi asmita with great effect during the election campaign, when he pitched it as a battle between Maratha pride and the Delhi takht. He did it again, to keep the three party flock of 162 MLAs together. It was also a mahaul (environment) that was created, which kept the MLAs by Sharad Pawar’s side as one man, and they even took a public pledge. After Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar were sworn in, they had been reaching out to legislators on this side. 

Most important of all, the newbie Maha Vikas Aghadi has also demonstrated that a united opposition can go for the kill if there is an acceptable leader — in this case, Sharad Pawar who is now being viewed with new eyes, not just in Maharashtra but also nationally — to lead them. 

As the Aghadi knuckles down to dealing with the challenges posed by prolonged drought and floods that hit Maharashtra this year, the BJP is going to raise emotional issues to intensify the contradictions within the coalition, like the Citizens’ Amendment Bill, which is on the anvil, and is supported by the Sena and opposed by others, or reservation for Muslims, or on ‘Veer’ Savarkar.

Uddhav Thackeray is the first Thackeray to don the mantle of Chief Minister. But he, backed though he will be by Sharad Pawar’s vast experience, will have his work cut out. More so, because the BJP, with its 105 members, will not allow any let-up on its attack in the coming days. 

Neerja Chowdhury
Senior journalist