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Maharashtra manoeuvres

Print edition : Apr 15, 2000

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Politics in the State has been on the boil for some weeks now, and the Democratic Front Government is very much on the defensive.

LYLA BAVADAM PRAVEEN SWAMI in Mumbai

LATE last month, Bal Thackeray proclaimed that the Shiv Sena would be back in power on Gudi Padwa day, the Maharashtrian New Year. At least one of Deputy Chief Minister Chaggan Bhujbal's staff did not seem too concerned. As a group of journalists discuss ed the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party strategy to come back into office, the secretary listened quietly. Then he walked away from his chair, humming a popular Hindi film tune which made clear just what he thought of the Sena-BJP's chances. 'Sapne me in milti hai' (you'll only get it in your dreams) - the line resonated through the office long enough for even the most film-illiterate to get the point.

Indeed, on Gudi Padwa day, Shiv Sena leader and former Chief Minister Narayan Rane quietly withdrew a cut motion his party had introduced in the Assembly on the State Government's budgetary demands for the Food and Civil Supplies Department. The decision to withdraw the motion marked the end of the fourth Sena-BJP attempt to bring down the Democratic Front Government. After a week of hectic lobbying, it had become clear to Sena-BJP strategists that they simply did not have the numbers. But the month-lon g political theatre that preceded Gudi Padwa made clear that the Democratic Front alliance will soon have to make hard political choices if it wants to keep its six-month long government going.

MUCH of the recent political skirmishing had been on the Sena-BJP's chosen terrain. Both parties have been attacking the Nationalist Congress Party-Congress(I) on communal grounds, arguing that the government has been compromised by Islamic fundamentalis ts. One major component of the campaign has been allegations that Mumbai's Samajwadi Party (S.P.) chief Abu Asim Azmi had made an anti-national speech at Mastan Talao on February 24. A tape handed over to the State government by the Sena-BJP records Azmi as proclaiming that if Islam were to be attacked, he would not be bothered if India broke into pieces. The Sena has long charged Azmi with having connections with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), although he was acquitted by the Supreme Cou rt of his alleged role in the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993.

When the Assembly session began on March 13, however, Sena-BJP MLAs brought proceedings to a halt with demands for Azmi's arrest. As their party colleagues shouted slogans, Shiv Sena members led by former Ministers Home Prabhakar More and Bala Nandgaonka r occupied the podium with banners condemning the S.P. leader. They were joined by Dinaz Patrawala, recently elected on the Shiv Sena ticket after the Congress(I) denied her the ticket after the death of her husband Marzaban Patrawala. Two days later, Se na-BJP MLAs blockaded the Vidhan Bhavan. Violence began when Democratic Front MLAs pushed their way inside. Eyewitness accounts of the fighting suggest that, for once, the Sena got as good as it gave.

Matters snowballed outside the Assembly as well. Women Shiv Sena members of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation assaulted S.P. corporator Waqarunissa Ansari on March 16, some stripping her and others trying to strangle her. Ansari, whose crime was a s peech she made against Thackeray, only escaped serious hurt because of the intervention of her party colleagues. In this violently anti-Muslim political climate, Azmi responded with some maturity, insisting that he had been quoted out of context and that the thrust of his speech had been misrepresented. Even as a jittery Democratic Front government initiated criminal proceedings against the S.P. leader at the J.J. Marg police station, he issued a statement apologising if he "had inadvertently hurt the f eelings of my countrymen".

It was left to Bhujbal, however, to point out the obvious. The Democratic Front, he said, had no intention of shielding Azmi, and the tape made available by the Sena had been sent for tests to establish its authenticity. But peddling hate, Bhujbal pointe d out, was not an S.P. monopoly. "Cases against Bal Thackeray for inciting communal hatred," he says, "were not registered for five years, even though he was found guilty of having made inflammatory speeches and punished by the Election Commission." Thac keray was last year stripped of his right to vote by the Election Commission for speeches he made asking for votes on religious grounds. "I have called for the files, and will take action," the Deputy Chief Minister told Frontline.

POSSIBLE legal action against Thackeray forms a second element of the Sena-BJP campaign. The State government is internally divided over the consequences of pushing ahead with implementing the recommendations of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993. Although both the Congress (I) and the NCP are committed to implementing its findings, which could mean Thackeray's arrest for his well-documented role in the riots, elements in both parties believe that this c ould lead to violence. It is clear, however, that should ongoing proceedings in the Supreme Court result in directions to the Maharashtra Government to act on Justice Srikrishna's findings, this would provide adequate cover to begin criminal proceedings against the top leadership of the Sena.

Anticipating this eventuality, the Sena has been charging the Democratic Front in general, and Bhujbal in particular, with weakening security for Thackeray and his family. Surplus police personnel posted with Thackeray were withdrawn on the basis of reco mmendations made by a review panel led by Chief Secretary Arun Bongirwar. Protected persons in the 'Z+' category are to be guarded by 43 personnel. The Shiv Sena-BJP Government in the State had assigned Thackeray 206 personnel, 11 vehicles, a closed circ uit television system at his residence, and a further 103 guards for his extended family. Bongirwar's recommendations lowered Thackeray's security cover to 115 personnel and seven vehicles, far in excess of the 43 personnel and three vehicles prescribed in the security manual.

It is unlikely, given the facts, that Thackeray's security was what concerned the Sena. The issue in fact presented a political opportunity. Sena leaders began to charge Bhujbal with ISI and mafia links, a smear campaign of obvious utility in the event o f Thackeray's arrest. In early February, as the Srikrishna Commission issue had begun to re-emerge in political discourse in Maharashtra, Leader of the Opposition Nitin Gadkari had charged Bhujbal with meeting at his residence two of those accused of a r ole in the 1993 serial bombings. The meeting, Gadkari said, had been arranged by Azmi. Gadkari is himself involved in ongoing criminal proceedings relating to murder.

Perhaps to Gadkari's surprise, Bhujbal promptly accepted that the meeting had indeed taken place. Eminent lawyer and Azmi's deputy in the city unit of S.P., Majeed Memon, then delivered the coup de grace. Former Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Mund e, Memon said, had led a delegation along with him and the blast accused to meet Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Minister Pramod Mahajan. The Prime Minister had indeed met the accused, who complained about a series of attacks by the Rajendra Nikh alje group which had left dead people who were under trial for their role in the bombings. The two accused had demanded official security, and also complained about prolonged delays in their trial. Vajpayee, Memon said, had promised action. "Why didn't t he Opposition protest when I took these men to meet the Prime Minister," Memon asks.

If the Sena-BJP leadership had an answer, it was not made public. An unembarrassed Rane simply pretended that his party's case had not crumbled. On March 10, he asserted that the Thackeray family had been made an easy target for the underworld. "The Chho ta Shakeel and Dawood Ibrahim gangs," he said, "had directed their guns at several Sena leaders to take revenge for the numerous encounters that took place when we were in office." The government's decision to scale down Thackeray's security, he said, "l ends credence to allegations that it had deliberately made the move."

A fortnight later he insisted that the Mumbai Police had evidence to link Azmi to Dawood Ibrahim, a claim which left open the question of why he as Chief Minister had not taken action against the S.P. leader.

A FURIOUS Bhujbal did what he could, initiating defamation proceedings against Rane. The State Police too was asked to compel the former Chief Minister to make available what evidence he had. Rane refused to do so, perhaps because he had none. These lega l proceedings are certain to punctuate Maharashtra politics in the months, perhaps even years, to come. But the Sena has achieved one useful objective through its campaign of agitation. The Democratic Front has been pushed into a defensive posture, and h as been able to do little to address Maharashtra's crippling financial problems, which have been provoking widespread discontent, particularly in the rural areas.

The government owes dues to cotton and onion farmers, among the State's most important crops. Procurements in several areas are made directly by the state, and the Democratic Front faced a major embarrassment in February when news broke that cheques issu ed to cotton farmers had been bouncing. Bhujbal now says that the nearly-bankrupt government, reeling from massive borrowing by the previous government, has taken loans to clear its dues to farmers. Payments of some Rs.3,700 crores have already been made , he says, and all cotton growers covered by the State's procurement scheme will be paid by early April. Onion farmers' dues will be met by the third week of April.

This in itself may not be enough to contain discontent in the countryside, and farmers are not the only ones who are angry. Workers in Mumbai are protesting against the plans of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to sell mill land. Massive illegal tr ansfers of land have taken place over the years, and funds raised from sales to private developers have seldom been pumped back to revive factories. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has announced that the sale of land would be allowed in order to set up software businesses, a move that will do little to meet the needs of workers who have not been paid for years. Twenty-three mills were closed down during Shiv Sena rule, even while rules designed to revive them were flouted with official connivance. The Democratic Front seems hardly interested in protecting the interests of tens of thousands of workers.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Front's plans to make job cuts to reduce the fiscal deficit could provoke further unrest. In his recent Budget speech, Finance Minister Jayant Patil described how the revenue deficit had risen over the last four years from Rs.1, 591 crores to Rs.9,484 crores. Patil said he planned to make the revenue balance positive over a five-year period by reducing the revenue deficit by 20 per cent each year for the next five years. Curbs have been placed on salary expenditure, and plans ar e on in several government departments to review staff strengths. Five per cent of the posts in the Finance and Planning Departments have been abolished. But sustained cuts in expenditure will mean less money for development and jobs, which in turn could provoke a backlash.

In the months to come, the Democratic Front will have to define a clear economic agenda to undo the damage caused through five years of Shiv Sena-BJP rule. Formulating an alternative agenda that does not alienate farmers and workers may prove a difficult task. More important, the alliance will have to find ways to engage with the Sena-BJP's renewed communal onslaught. With the NCP busy expanding its cadre strength in Maharashtra, and the Congress(I) becoming a victim of the conflicts in its central lead ership, neither grouping appears to have any clear understanding of how to bring about mass mobilisation to challenge the Opposition. Bhujbal is perhaps the sole important figure in the State government arguing for a clear offensive strategy. The failure to create one could mean serious trouble for the alliance.

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