BJP retired hurt in Maharashtra

Print edition : December 20, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president and Home Minister Amit Shah. Photo: PTI

NCP chief Sharad Pawar (left) with Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, who later took over as Chief Minister, in Mumbai on November 26. Photo: PTI

BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis. Photo: Shashank Parade/PTI

The BJP loses the power game in Maharashtra in the face of rare opposition unity and critical judicial intervention.

The dramatic political developments that unfolded in Maharashtra in the second fortnight of November, leading to the swearing-in of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Congress government on the evening of November 28, reflected multiple trends in contemporary Indian politics which are bound to have substantive short- and medium-term implications. Their long-term impact depends on the manner in which the political players from different sides respond to and engage with them.

Indeed, the early acts of the political drama were on show immediately after the announcement of the elections to the State Assembly on October 24, when the Shiv Sena reminded its senior pre-election partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), about the 50:50 power-sharing formula that was agreed upon way back in May 2019. It was the political jousting on this demand that prevented the formation of a Ministry for nearly a month after the announcement of the results. But the twists, turns and aggravation that the political drama acquired between November 22 and 28 were such that it brought to the fore many facets of Indian democracy, from the despicable and deplorable political machinations, blatantly undermining constitutional morality and misusing various offices of power, including that of the topmost administrative functionaries of the country and the State, to the noteworthy interventions by sections of the judiciary to the spirited resistance put up by one of the senior-most opposition leaders of the country, NCP president Sharad Pawar, to the subversion of democratic norms and systems.

One of the most striking aspects of these developments, leading to the ultimate ascension of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition government to power is that the myth and aura of invincibility that has been assiduously cultivated around the political personalities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah has got damaged considerably. Shah, in particular, was depicted as an electoral and political manoeuvrer non-pareil, someone who can lead the BJP to power even in situations where the party has apparently no chance of coming to power.

A clutch of developments in different parts of the country over the past year or so have been highlighted repeatedly to give credence to Shah’s prowess. These include “Operation Lotus” in Karnataka, which was executed over several months, engineering defections from the coalition government of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) and hoisting the B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP government in July 2019. Earlier, in States such as Goa, Meghalaya and Manipur, too, the BJP successfully formed the governments though it did not have the majority or was not the single-largest party. The situation in Meghalaya was particularly noteworthy since the BJP went on to become an important part of the ruling coalition even though it had won just two seats in an Assembly having a total of 60.

Bereft of political morality

Every time such “successes” were credited to the Shah-Modi team, opposition leaders and political observers pointed out that a large number of the “realpolitik operations” carried out as part of these political expeditions were bereft of even a modicum of political morality. But the BJP leadership and a significant section of the pro-establishment media justified every single vile trick and politically expedient tinkering as instances of incredible political craftsmanship. What unfolded in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, through the night of November 22, leading to the early morning slinking in of Devendra Fadnavis the next day as Chief Minister, was a repeat of similar unscrupulous stratagems employed in other States. Ajit Pawar, who was elected as the legislature party leader of the NCP on October 30, was weaned away through midnight manoeuvres. Following this, Ajit Pawar, who claimed that he had the support of all the 54 NCP MLAs, and Fadnavis were sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister and Chief Minister respectively by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari without any public announcement before the swearing-in ceremony.

The scale of the obnoxious operations that preceded this was unparalleled in their sordidness and depravity. The Prime Minister invoked the special powers under Rule 12 of the Allocation of Business Rules (1961), which allows him to take a call on such matters to “meet a situation of extreme urgency or unforeseen contingency”, and rushed to withdraw President’s Rule. The Governor, then, acted in a blatantly partisan manner, apparently without asking questions regarding the claims about the MLAs reportedly supporting this dispensation.

Consider this sequence of events and their timing. Both the Prime Minister’s invocation of special powers and President Ramnath Kovind’s assent to it came about in the middle of the night. A gazette notification of the revocation of President’s Rule, digitally signed by the Union Home Secretary, was issued at 5.47 a.m. The swearing-in ceremony, which was proclaimed after it was conducted, concluded at 8.10 a.m. Modi and Shah tweeted their congratulatory messages shortly after, around 8.16 a.m.

In the three days that Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar remained in office after this, the BJP leadership and its legislators in Maharashtra were of the view that these manoeuvres were the epitome of political craftsmanship. A number of these legislators had another supplementary line too in conversations with Frontline. They said that the importance that the State had as the industrial and financial hub of the country justified all these manoeuvres because capturing power here was similar to capturing power at the Centre.

However, as Fadnavis resigned on the afternoon of November 26, tamely following the path shown by Ajit Pawar less than an hour previously, all these reasoning and exultations about political master strokes gave way to sullen acceptance of the fact that the Modi-Shah team had been outplayed by the Sharad Pawar-led coalition. Of course, Fadnavis did try to adopt a piteous posture, saying that the BJP did not believe in horse-trading and had formed the government because it believed Ajit Pawar’s claim of support from the NCP MLAs. But this posturing was not good enough to cover up the evident embarrassment of the State and central leaderships of the BJP.

Prior to this, the Supreme Court too had virtually pointed fingers at the BJP’s brazen vandalisation of constitutional norms and precedents and highlighted the urgency to “protect democratic values”. The court’s observation that when “there is a possibility of horse-trading, it becomes incumbent upon the court to act”, too, pointed primarily towards the culpability of the BJP leadership’s machinations to somehow capture power in the State (see story on page 8).

The games that the BJP leadership played to usurp power in Maharashtra and the Supreme Court’s significant observations on the same have evoked widespread public reaction, especially in Maharashtra. Comments from a cross section of the population in Mumbai and Baramati, the political bastion of the Pawar family, revolved primarily around two points. One, how the BJP leadership, especially Amit Shah, has been outplayed in the post-election games where they claim to have great expertise. Two, the indirect but thorough exposure by the Supreme Court of the unseemly tactics that the BJP had unleashed in Maharashtra.

Political and moral reverse

Summing up, as it were, the mood of the people, especially the youth, Sarvesh Kumar of Baramati said: “People will laugh at the BJP and its leadership if they continue to claim that they are politically clean or efficient as they used to do in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election and through most part of Modi’s first term. Clearly, hubris has gone to the head of the party leadership and the manner in which they have gone about the Maharashtra operations exemplifies this. Originally, when the Shiv Sena refused to join hands with the BJP to form the government, there was some sympathy for Fadnavis. But the scheming between November 22 and 26 has taken away that too.”

Beyond these obvious political and moral reverses, several leaders of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition and many political observers are of the view that the developments in Maharashtra have yet another important political dimension. According to them, the developments mark a concrete realpolitik reflection of a distinct trend that was visible in the recent Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. In both these States, the BJP’s hopes of sweeping victories and huge majorities got smashed essentially on account of widespread voter disaffection, denying the party a majority on its own.

In Haryana, the party managed to form a coalition government immediately after the results were announced by roping in the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), though the BJP leadership had systematically run the JJP down throughout the election campaign as a political outfit promoted by generations of corrupt leaders. However, in Maharashtra, the BJP failed to keep the pre-election alliance intact, in spite of the fact that the alliance had a clear majority. When the alliance fell through, the BJP made efforts to repeat the Haryana model, but that failed too. Leaders of the coalition point out that both the collapse of the alliance and the failure of the back-door games are extensions of the trend of voter disaffection evident in the election results. “The Shiv Sena leadership was convinced that it need not play second fiddle to a party that was getting increasingly crippled by voter disaffection. The Shiv Sena’s manoeuvres to reach out to the NCP and the Congress were founded on this premise,” said a senior NCP leader, wishing to remain anonymous.

Voter disaffection

Speaking to Frontline, senior Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, too, echoed this line. According to him, the success of the party’s moves to form an alternative government has to be evaluated as a concrete manifestation of the larger electoral trend that could be deduced from the October Assembly results. Leaders of the NCP and the Congress, including Chhagan Bhujbal and Ashok Chavan, are of the view that there is tremendous significance in the Shiv Sena parting ways with the BJP, its oldest ally in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and openly exploring alternative political paths. Talking to Frontline, Bhujbal said that from now on, the BJP would have to be more accommodating of its other allies such as the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiromani Akali Dal. “The Shiv Sena’s moves would certainly embolden them to think and act more independently.” The political analyst Shaji Joseph told Frontline that signals from Bihar and Jharkhand were already affirming Bhujbal’s perceptions.

Bhujbal was also of the view that the Maharashtra developments and the manner in which Sharad Pawar led the fightback from the front holds a message for the entire opposition. “It shows that the vast and overwhelming political machinery of the BJP and its scheming can be taken on if you are resolved to fight unitedly.” Several NCP leaders are of the view that it is the collective work of Sharad Pawar, Ahmed Patel and Sanjay Raut that came good in neutralising the games of the Shah-Modi-Fadnavis team. By all indications, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was resolutely aligned with Pawar’s team, “snubbing the ideologically agonised and the doubting Thomases in her party”, many of whom hailed from Kerala. As has been his wont in recent times, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi was not in the thick of the Maharashtra action.

Commenting on the sequence of events, the Lucknow-based Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Sudhirkumar Panwar pointed out that the Maharashtra developments had reiterated the importance of regional parties in protecting the democratic fabric of the country. “It is time that all secular parties consciously accepted this fact and put together resources to build a principled united front against fascist forces. This is especially important because the threats posed by the Sangh Parivar and its allied forces in different spheres of society and institutional mechanisms are ultimately aimed at the subversion of the key tenets of the Indian Constitution. In the face of such sustained and well-organised efforts, the shot in the arm given to democratic principles by the Supreme Court on the Maharashtra developments could well turn out to be a flash in the pan.” Panwar’s view has many takers in different parties, including the Congress, especially at the level of middle- and lower-level activists.

Overall, the mood in the BJP the other outfits in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar following the Maharashtra denouement is one that broadly agrees with the perception of voter disaffection with the Modi government. Reiterating what he said immediately after the October 24 results were announced, a senior Sangh Parivar leader based in the Uttar Pradesh temple town of Ayodhya told Frontline that the high of the early months of the Modi 2.0 regime had been brought down by both the electoral verdicts and the post-election developments. “But we are buoyed by the Ayodhya verdict in favour of the temple and the developments in Jammu and Kashmir, where the conventional mainstream parties of the State are getting increasingly marginalised. Maharashtra is a minor reverse, which the BJP will try to overcome using the Karnataka model. We shall continue our efforts on the path of the Hindu Rashtra come what may,” he said. Evidently, despite the reverses, the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar have the resolve to forge ahead.

The big question in this context is whether the secular opposition parties as a collective will draw the right lessons from the Maharashtra fightback and come up with concrete plans of political action and mobilisation. There is little doubt that there is a new energy in the opposition ranks after the Maharashtra denouement. The addition of Maharashtra to the list of opposition-ruled States is also bound to give a fillip to the mood. Geographically substantive and sociopolitically and economically important States such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha are already held by non-BJP parties. This situation also promises to make the upcoming Assembly elections in Jharkhand and Delhi more interesting and competitive. But, as pointed out by Sudhirkumar Panwar, the excitement will have to be followed up by well-designed political initiatives for tangible and productive electoral outcomes.

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