There are villains on every side and no heroes in Maharashtra’s politics at the moment. That the Shiv Sena’s winning legislators are in a hotel, to protect them from being poached by their alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shows the nadir that Indian politics has descended into. Hours before the deadline to form the state government passes, after nearly two weeks of uncertainty, there is no clarity on who will support whom to form the Cabinet.
The Sena may still settle for the deputy chief minister’s position and a few plum ministries. Yet, there is a range of possibilities—all smacking of cynical and manipulative realpolitik—that can occur in coming days. In each case, it is the people who will be the losers. All of them will amount to democracy’s retreat.
Here is how: The BJP has won 105 seats in the 288-member Assembly and Shiv Sena, 56. Together, they are well past the majority mark of 145, but the Sena wants an equal partnership based on its claim of a pre-poll deal with BJP. Actually, it is playing hardball, considering its vote percentage has been declining over the last few elections. That the BJP and it appeal to an overlapping Hindutva constituency makes it urgent for the Shiv Sena to break free of the senior partner’s shadow. Traditionally, the big brother in their alliance, after 2014, the BJP’s sudden rise under Narendra Modi helped it overtake the Sena full-throttle.
Since the Maharashtra Assembly election in 1990, the Sena’s vote share has consistently ranged between 16% and 20%. The BJP was at 10.7%, or 5% below the Sena in 1990, though it contested on fewer seats. In 2014, the BJP got 27.8% of the total votes, contesting independently. Thus, Devendra Fadnavis became the state’s first BJP chief minister, and the Sena was relegated to number two position.
In the 2019 Assembly polls, the Sena swallowed its pride and contested just 124 seats, 40 less than the BJP. The BJP has ended up with 25.8% of the votes, more than 9% of the Sena’s tally. Sena fought on more seats in Western Maharashtra, where Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress party are strong. The BJP focused seats in Vidarbha, where the Congress has been weakening.
Ideologically as well, during the 1990s and 2000s, the BJP under party chief and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was seen to represent a more moderate Hindutva compared with the Sena’s hardline stance under late Bal Thackeray. Sena thus dominated the state’s politics. After Thackeray died in 2012, and Narendra Modi’s joining the national political scene, many found in him a new “Hindu Hriday Samrat”, a title Bal Thackeray had held. The weakened successors of Sena and further pushed it towards decline.
The Sena, for all these reasons, knows this is its last chance to take the centre-stage, more so because Thackeray scion, Bal Thackeray’s grandson, Aaditya Thackeray, fought for the first time from the Worli seat and won. His father, Uddhav Thackeray, knows that realpolitik dictates treating this as a now or never moment for his party.
Uddhav is secretly being egged on by Sharad Pawar, the wily Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo and the silently unhappy BJP leader Nitin Gadkari, whose 12 proteges were not given tickets, and switched to the NCP in this election.
Ever since it got a clear majority at the Centre, the BJP has treated its allies disdainfully, allowing just one ministerial berth to Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Shiv Sena, respectively. Had the BJP managed a majority on its own in Maharashtra, the same fate would have befallen the Thackerays in the state.
Even the BJP has got a taste of its own medicine. It snatched power in Goa though it had not secured a majority but tied up with the anti-BJP outfit, Goa Forward, to form a government.
In Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland it tied up with smaller local parties to deprive the single largest parties of power. In Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, BJP engineered wholesale defections and, with the Governor’s help, assumed power.
When it failed to get a majority in Karnataka, BJP engineered a rebellion within the ruling Janata Dal-Secular-Congress government and forced it to become a minority government. It takes a crook to fix a crook—that is what is happening in Maharashtra. This time, the BJP is on the backfoot, perhaps for the first time since 2014.
The NCP supremo has repeatedly said that their mandate is to sit in the Opposition, but Pawar also met Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in Delhi, and his party has had discussions with the Sena’s man of the moment, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, Sanjay Raut. There are also reports of discussions with Gadkari through emissaries. Obviously, the NCP is waiting for BJP to fail to get majority, which will happen if the Sena remains belligerent. Thereafter, presumably, it can either join a Sena-led government or support a Sena government from outside, along with the Congress.
Congress has proven to be the worst of all in this season of dramas, intrigues and political unpredictability. First, it did not put its heart into fighting the elections and seemed to have accepted defeat when its national and local leaders were either missing or missing in action, except in their family bastions. Instead of taking political positions, in the past two weeks, it has remained a casual bystander. Plus, it does not seem to have planned ahead; except parroting that it will not be an active participant in whichever government is formed in Maharashtra.
The Governor is bound to call the single-largest party to form the government and prove its majority on the floor of the Assembly. The BJP can get there by breaking the Sena or the NCP or both. It may be buoyed by a favourable Ramjanmabhoomi verdict that will force the Sena to fall in line. The BJP might even be delaying government formation, as it expects a favourable Supreme Court verdict in the vexed Ayodhya dispute. Thereafter, it would go ballistic with nationalism and Hindutva, making the Sena fall in line or risk being called anti-Hindu and anti-national.
BJP may even compromise with a candidate like Gadkari or his protege Sudheer Mungatiwar as chief minister to get the Sena on board. This is a remote possibility that will keep the BJP in the driver’s seat, though it is unlikely that the shrewd Fadnavis will let go of power. Considering all its options, the alliance led by BJP in Maharashtra is nothing but a marriage of convenience, that will not run long.
For, the only other alternative before it the state is a farce as was enacted in other states. This can happen if the Sena assumes power with NCP and Congress’s support. This is what we saw in Karnataka when BJP's BS Yediyurappa failed and the unlikely Congress-Janata Dal Secular alliance took shape.
If the single-largest party fails to prove its majority, the Governor is duty-bound to call the next party, the Sena, which must submit a list of supporting legislators. If this fails, it will amount to a breakdown of constitutional machinery leading to President’s Rule which, under Article 356 of the Constitution, can normally extend for six months, and extended thereafter.
The writer is Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata-based Adamas University. The views are personal.