Coalition politics

Beaten back in Maharashtra

Print edition : December 20, 2019

NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and other leaders during a meeting of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance in Mumbai on November 26. Photo: PTI

NCP leader Ajit Pawar after the floor test in Mumbai on November 30. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Sharad Pawar, the master strategist, outwits the BJP, which has been reduced to watching the game from the sidelines in Maharashtra.

It has almost become passe to compare the recent political manoeuvrings in Maharashtra to George R.R. Martin’s cliffhanger book Game of Thrones but, truly, among contemporary works there is no other worthy comparison. Both are masterful, complex webs of deceit, treachery and lust for power, and neither has come to an end. But unlike the book, in which there are many kingpins, the story in Maharashtra revolves around one man—Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar.

Sharad Pawar was responsible for forming the Maha Vikas Aghadi, a post-election coalition of the NCP, the Shiv Sena and the Congress along with the Samajwadi Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Peasants and Workers Party and some independent MLAs. And it is Sharad Pawar’s strategy that made the Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray the Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

Timeline of events

Here is a look at the way things unfolded before Uddhav Thackeray took the oath of office on November 27, a month after the results were declared and the Sena had broken ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On November 18, Sharad Pawar met Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and overcame her misgivings about allying with the Sena, explaining that it was the only way to oust the BJP in Maharashtra. On the night of November 22, the Congress, the NCP and the Sena were deliberating their next move.

According to reports, senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar was opposed to the Congress getting any plum posts. While discussions were on, Sharad Pawar left the meeting and met mediapersons to tell them that Uddhav Thackeray would be Maharashtra’s next Chief Minister.

This stunning piece of news was followed the very next morning by the stupefying announcement that the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis had been sworn in as the State’s Chief Minister around 8 a.m. by Governor B.S. Koshyari.

The announcement said that the BJP claimed it had the numbers to prove its majority, as it had the support of Ajit Pawar and 54 NCP MLAs.

Apparently, once the BJP was sure the Sena was on a path of no return in their partnership, it decided on a tit-for-tat action. If it worked it might help them form the government. If it did not, it might at least shake the NCP-Sena-Congress camp.

Ajit Pawar was the preferred target possibly because he had a recent history of rebellion within the NCP and obviously because it would be a blow to Sharad Pawar if his nephew and a senior NCP leader was lured away. Rewarded for defecting, Ajit Pawar was appointed as Deputy Chief Minister in Fadnavis’ government. But it was short-lived.

On November 26, hours before the BJP had to prove its majority in a floor test to comply with a Supreme Court order, Ajit Pawar resigned as Fadnavis’ deputy. It was the shortest government in Maharashtra’s history, collapsing about 80 hours after it was formed.

Pawar’s manoeuvres

Was Sharad Pawar in the know? The general consensus is that he probably was. After all, the stage had already been set to show that there were rumbles within the Pawar family. In late September Ajit Pawar had resigned as NCP MLA ostensibly because he was depressed that he had been accused in a money laundering case by the Enforcement Directorate. But he was persuaded to withdraw his resignation.

Besides this, he has a history of rebellion. In 2002 he had challenged his uncle and demanded that he be made Deputy Chief Minister and the then Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal be removed.

However, Sharad Pawar vigorously denied any knowledge. What exactly happened is not yet completely in the public domain but a series of tweets indicated the general scheme of things. After Ajit Pawar’s defection he tweeted, “I am in the NCP and shall always be in the NCP and @PawarSpeaks Saheb is our leader. Our BJP-NCP alliance shall provide a stable Government in Maharashtra for the next five years which will work sincerely for the welfare of the State and its people.”

Sharad Pawar replied, “There is no question of forming an alliance with @BJP4Maharashtra. NCP has unanimously decided to ally with @ShivSena & @INCMaharashtra to form the government. Shri Ajit Pawar’s statement is false and misleading in order to create confusion and false perception among the people.”

Interestingly, although Sharad Pawar removed Ajit as leader of the legislative party he did not expel him from the NCP. Instead, he worked hard behind the scenes and succeeded in bringing back his nephew. It was he who had appealed for a quick floor test and it was he who had kept parties as diverse as the Sena and the Congress-NCP combine together through a time of great flux.

Sharad Pawar even made excuses for his nephew saying, “Perhaps he did not like our allying with the Sena”, but still dismissed it by adding: “I don’t really know why he took that decision.”

But why go through with this elaborate charade? Why did Sharad Pawar not just go ahead and firm up the numbers with the Congress and the Sena and prove that the NCP could form the government? Possibly it was to publicly discredit the BJP and get them firmly off the scene. And a mere 72 hours in government certainly did dent the BJP’s image.

A digitally altered image showing Fadnavis being carried off by two men assisted by Uddhav Thackeray and Ajit Pawar is doing the rounds and the caption in Marathi reads “One and a half days Ganpati”. Furthermore, Ajit Pawar certainly did benefit from his support to the BJP because he was given a clean chit in some of the pending cases against him dating back to the time when he was Minister for Irrigation. Some say this was a coincidence and not a quid pro quo for joining hands with the BJP.

BJP’s position

Despite losing out badly in this charade, the BJP may still choose to look at the brighter side. For the BJP this could be a wait-and-watch period. It could be time used to let Uddhav Thackeray discredit himself. After all, he has given the BJP enough weaponry to use against him. He has shifted over to the “seculars”, thereby automatically distancing himself from the Ayodhya issue, which he had claimed almost for himself and raised repeatedly during the Lok Sabha and Assembly election campaigns.

Now that the temple is going to be built at the same site, Uddhav Thackeray can say he has achieved his aim, but the BJP can still needle him by saying that by shifting over to the “secular” side he has betrayed his father, who claimed to be the Hindu Hriday Samrat, or king of Hindu hearts. By sitting on the sidelines, the BJP may have the pleasure of watching Uddhav Thackeray self-destruct but, then again, he is in the very able hands of Sharad Pawar. Whether or not Uddhav Thackeray has burnt his bridges remains to be seen. Since there are no permanent friends or foes in politics, the other possible scenario is that if the Maha Vikas Aghadi government fails, the BJP may consider realigning with the Sena but completely on its own terms.

Much remains shrouded in secrecy about the recent proceedings in the State. Those normally in the know have professed bafflement. Others have been adept at constructing possible scenarios. Among the many theories doing the rounds the most eye-popping one is that the Shiv Sena-NCP tie-up was a pre-poll alliance that was kept secret.

Rumour has it that Sharad Pawar had invoked his old friendship with Uddhav Thackeray’s father and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and warned Uddhav Thackeray that the BJP would discard him and his party at the earliest.

While the game that is played out in Maharashtra makes this a possibility, what it highlights is the almost mythical powers of Sharad Pawar, who is a seen as a man who can engineer plots of such intricacy and, amazingly, carry them out too.

Throughout, Sharad Pawar has had much to lose and everything to gain. And if at times it seems that he has been outwitted, like when Ajit Pawar made his blindingly swift flight to and from the BJP, it would be naive to disregard him in the overall strategy. If the Maha Vikas Aghadi fails, it will be a huge blow to the NCP and the Congress. Both parties are struggling to keep their heads above water.

In the last couple of elections the BJP and the Sena have overtaken the NCP and the Congress. The 2019 Assembly elections were not expected to be any different. And indeed they were not. The voters ensured that the BJP won 105 seats, the Sena 56, the NCP 54 and the Congress 44. With 161 seats, the saffron combine was the clear winner. How was this victory to be countered? One possibility was the above-mentioned secret pact. If true, it may not have been difficult to convince the Sena to be party to it.

Treatment of allies

The BJP has a history of being riding roughshod over its allies. Recently, smaller parties in Jharkhand and Haryana complained of unfair treatment by the BJP and withdrew from their alliance. Historically too, there were complaints: the partners of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance formed in 1998 all finally drifted away citing the BJP’s unfair treatment.

The Sena has throughout been in the most comfortable position since it was assured of being in government either way, in partnership with the BJP or whoever chose to partner with it.

It is possible that what tilted the balance for the Sena was the promise of chief ministership. Despite over two decades of partnership with the BJP, the Sena has always been made acutely aware of being the lesser partner and constantly reminded of its rawness in politics, its lack of national presence and its lack of statesmen.

Even the late Pramod Mahajan, the man who brought the BJP and the Sena together, had contempt for the Sena. While talking about Bal Thackeray, Mahajan once told this correspondent: “He [Bal Thackeray] is a small man.” This small man-small party complex is something of a chip on the shoulder with the Sena. Sharad Pawar knew this and exploited it ruthlessly and successfully.

For the Sena it would have been too tempting to refuse a shot at real power. For Sharad Pawar, handling Uddhav Thackeray is not likely to be difficult given their old connections as well as his reputation in politics. So, though the chief ministership is Uddhav Thackeray’s, the remote control has passed from the Sena’s hands to the NCP. That the BJP sees Sharad Pawar as a major threat in this game is more than obvious. It has tried a variety of ways to discredit him but Sharad Pawar’s management of this game has been in public view throughout.

When the Enforcement Directorate (ED) issued a notice in September summoning Sharad Pawar to its office in connection with a money laundering scandal, he saw it for what it was—a pre-election missile fired by the BJP.

Sharad Pawar protested his innocence (rightly, as it turned out) but said he would visit the ED office. As the leader of the NCP, it was not difficult for him to rouse his party workers into a rage after which he announced the time when he would pay a visit to the ED office. Recognising a potential law and order situation, the authorities backed down and the matter ended.

The BJP also thought it could damage Sharad Pawar by engineering defections. The party succeeded when it lured away Udayanraje Bhonsale, a direct descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji and the most powerful man in Satara district. Sharad Pawar struck back.

An iconic photograph of him addressing a rally in Satara in heavy rain stayed in voters’ minds. He admitted to having made a “mistake” in his choice of Bhonsale and thereby discredited him. And by candidly admitting to a mistake, Sharad Pawar threw himself at the mercy of the crowd by using the old trick of showing his “human” side. The voters rejected Bhonsale and voted in Sharad Pawar’s candidate.

Well aware that he is the BJP’s target, Sharad Pawar has been careful to keep his family close around him. Despite this he has had to put out a few fires. As the fulcrum of the Pawar clan, he has raised the profile of his family, bringing his nephew Ajit, his daughter Supriya and grand-nephews Parth and Rohit into politics. The family has always been loyal to their patriarch.

Ajit Pawar owes his political existence to his uncle, and his true worth will be known when he has to stand on his own, and the general consensus is that he will fail.

Although Sharad Pawar is the sole point of power in his family, he has been grooming his nephew Rohit in whom he seems to see a spark of leadership. This has annoyed Ajit Pawar, who feels his own son Parth has been neglected.

The BJP has been watching all of this carefully because it knows that the NCP is nothing without Sharad Pawar. It also knows that whatever opposition exists in Maharashtra is because of Pawar and the NCP, which is why it focusses only on the NCP. The party does not consider the Congress a threat. As for the Sena the BJP knows that the Sena is a power only if it is led by someone else.

Finally, returning to the Game of Thrones, the book illustrates the cyclical nature of power—just when it seems that one character is on top and the other is crushed, the wheel starts moving again and the seemingly crushed one reappears intact and gloats as his former victor tumbles down.

The moral applies to Maharashtra politics—although Sharad Pawar is never to be underestimated, neither is Narendra Modi or Amit Shah. Maharashtra sends the second-largest number of members to Parliament. The financial capital, Mumbai, is in the State. The State is also the home base of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

It is unlikely that the BJP will quietly swallow the humiliation or let the State be snatched away forever. Currently ebullient, the Maha Vikas Aghadi will have to be alert to all moves.