A new round

Print edition : December 19, 1998

The BJP's debacle in the recent Assembly elections adds to the uncertainties before the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition in Maharashtra.

THE winter storm that blew the Bharatiya Janata Party from power in Rajasthan and Delhi has sent shivers down the spines of politicians of the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in Maharashtra. They have now realised that the State is no longer a warm home for the Hindu right. Although Assembly elections are due only in March 2000, the prospects of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance collapsing any time seem increasingly real. Top Congress(I) politicians in the State have already made it known that they are ready to assume power and that they are waiting for permission from their central leadership to stage a coup. The winter session of the State Assembly, scheduled to open in Nagpur on December 14, will be the springboard for a bitter political struggle.

The first pre-Nagpur skirmish was initiated by the Speaker of the Assembly Dattaji Nalavade. On December 3, Nalavade issued notices to seven independent Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) asking them to explain their decision to join the Congress(I). The Speaker was acting on a complaint by Shiv Sena MLA Chandrakant Padwal that the seven independents had violated the anti-defection law by their action. The anti-defection law, Padwal argued, allowed independents the option of joining a party only in the first six months after their election. Joining a party after this period violated Section II(2) of Schedule X of the Constitution, he said. The section mandates that "an elected member of the House who has been elected as such, otherwise than as a candidate set up by any political party shall be disqualified for being a member of the House if he joins any political party after such election".

Despite the apparently emphatic language of Schedule X, it is far from clear what course events in Maharashtra will now take. For one, there is considerable confusion over whether the seven independents have in fact joined the Congress(I). Madhukar Pichad, Leader of the Opposition and Congress(I) MLA, has denied that any independent has either joined or applied for the membership of the Congress(I)."Though there are a number of independents keen to join the Congress," he says, "nobody has applied so far." Secondly, the language of the 1985 anti-defection Act, made applicable to the Maharashtra Assembly in 1986, is in itself monumentally vague. Congress(I) leaders insist that it applies only to actions inside the Assembly. Disqualification, they assert, would follow only if an independent were to become a member of the Congress(I) Legislature Party.

The central fact about the disqualification move is its political objectives. The 44 independents in the Assembly consist principally of Congress(I) rebels, who form a bloc that was instrumental in bringing about the Shiv Sena-BJP victory of March 1995. Sources in the Congress(I) told Frontline that a group of about 26 MLAs had planned to ally themselves with their parent party. Ganesh Naik of the Shiv Sena, who was dismissed from the Ministry, claims that he commands the loyalty of 22 MLAs, most of them independents; he plans to launch a new party in Nagpur. His fellow Shiv Sena dissidents and former Ministers Gulabrao Gawande and Suresh Navale are also preparing to make their unhappiness known. Pichad said: "Chief Minister Manohar Joshi is just trying to save his chair. The move to disqualify the independents is a warning to all those who could threaten the Government, particularly the Shiv Sena's own dissident MLAs."

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

Pichad's theory is plausible, if only because Joshi has been showing growing signs of nervousness about the strength of his flanks. At a December 2 meeting with journalists Joshi promised a "small expansion" of his Council of Ministers, the fourth in the Shiv Sena-BJP's three and a half years in power, on December 7. The expansion was unabashedly designed to secure the support of independent MLAs, on whom the Government depends for its survival. "If three new independents are inducted, the strength of the Shiv Sena-BJP, including the independent legislators, will reach 148 in a House of 288," Joshi said. "We do not think Naik has the support of more than three or four legislators," he added in response to a question about the former Minister's negotiations with the Congress(I). "But if he does, it is certainly a matter of concern for the Government. We will have to crush the rebellion immediately."

But it is uncertain how far Cabinet expansions and the browbeating of independents will help to keep the alliance afloat. For one, the Shiv Sena has shown little comprehension of the reasons for the Hindu right's debacle in the Assembly elections. Shortly after inaugurating work on a television serial eulogising his father K.S. 'Prabhodhankar' Thackeray on November 29, Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray made his views on the electoral reverses known. According to him, the BJP's failure to take an aggressive position on Hindutva, particularly its failure to make the singing of Vande Mataram compulsory and its support for India-Pakistan cricket matches, cost it the election. "The Centre should have taken a bold stand on these issues and the lack of it resulted in the BJP losing Hindu votes," Thackeray claimed.

Such rhetoric illustrates the difficulty that the Shiv Sena has in comprehending a transformed real world. Although many people in the Shiv Sena have taken some quiet satisfaction from the humbling of the BJP, bizarre adventures, notably its assault on the film Fire, have done little to win it support. Indeed, the Chief Minister himself appears to have little faith in Thackeray's instructions, particularly on using his birthday celebrations to launch a scheme of distributing vegetables at cheap rates in Mumbai. Joshi said: "It appears that a section of commission agents are deciding the high prices and that the consumer is at the receiving end. We cannot tolerate such a situation and therefore we decided to step in." The move came at a time when prices of vegetables had begun to stabilise, and hence this belated action won for Joshi little more than derision.

BJP leaders, for their part, appear divided on just how to proceed. Sources told Frontline that top BJP leader Pramod Mahajan had been attempting to bring about some kind of rapprochement with the Shiv Sena. One senior party leader said: "Mahajan says that forcing a confrontation with the Shiv Sena on issues like the proposed India-Pakistan cricket match in Mumbai or Fire will be counter-productive. He believes that in the wake of the defeats in the North, we will have to gloss over our differences with the Shiv Sena and somehow ensure that the alliance sits out its five years." Thackeray, for his part, has responded to the BJP's make-up bid with some warmth. At a recent function in Mumbai, Thackeray described the war of words on the cricket match issue as a "passing phase". "The marriage is working fine," he said. "The press is over-reacting to the situation."

Other powerful figures in the BJP, however, might disagree with this assessment. Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, for one, responded sharply to the rationale advocated by Thackeray for the BJP's electoral reverses. "I don't want to comment on Thackeray's remarks," he said on November 30. "As far as the BJP is concerned, our view is that we were badly mauled owing to the spiralling prices of essential commodities and our inability to explain to the electorate the reasons for this phenomenon." Many leaders of the BJP in Maharashtra believe that playing along with any aggressive chauvinistic mobilisation or economic adventure by Thackeray could end in the party's complete marginalisation. "We have to distance ourselves from the Shiv Sena if we want to survive," said a leader of the BJP in Mumbai. "Even if we cannot win the elections in 2000, our objective should be to emerge as the sole credible opposition to the Congress(I)."

Chief Minister Manohar Joshi.-VIVEK BENDRE

CRITICALLY, the Congress(I) too seems divided on how to respond to the election results and the simmering political tensions in Maharashtra. Party heavyweight Sharad Pawar had on November 24 outlined the official party position, one that many close to him say he is unhappy with. Pawar denied that his party would form a government even if the 22 independent MLAs backed the Congress(I) in Nagpur. "It is better to go in for elections and get a fresh mandate from the people," he explained. "We don't want any hotch-potch arrangement or alliance in the short term." But senior Congress(I) figures such as one-time Shiv Sena member Chhagan Bhujbal are believed to be lobbying hard for permission to stage a coup; they point out that the independents will not act if they are forced to face fresh elections.

In a wider sense, those in the Congress(I) who argue for a decisive move to bring down the Shiv Sena-BJP are prompted by the realisation that sixteen months is near-eternity in political terms. "We can only bring down the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance if we are willing to form a government ourselves," said a party leader. "If we choose to wait, perhaps the alliance will become even more discredited, but a lot of things can go wrong for us as well. All it would take for the Shiv Sena to claw its way back into the reckoning would be a couple of well-timed communal riots."

Whether this assessment is correct, time alone can tell. However, if the Congress(I) fails to use the Nagpur Assembly session as a springboard for concerted political action, the party might find that it has no one to blame but itself for giving the Hindutva forces in Maharashtra a fresh lease of life.

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