Exit Manohar Joshi

Print edition : February 13, 1999

The replacement of Manohar Joshi with Narayan Rane as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra indicates the Shiv Sena's intention to pursue an aggressive programme of communal mobilisation, which the party hopes will help it retain power in next year's Assembly elections.

MANOHAR JOSHI'S removal from the office of Maharashtra Chief Minister resembled nothing as much as the tossing of an unwanted machine on to a scrap yard. The way in which he had to leave office cannot perhaps be described as surprising. Shortly after Joshi assumed office in March 1995, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had made it clear that the Chief Minister would act on the commands served by his metaphorical "remote control". For four years, Joshi's studied geniality served the Shiv Sena's strategy of projecting itself as a responsible party of governance. However, with the March 2000 Assembly elections fast approaching, that strategy had to change. Now, Narayan Tatu Rane, the new Chief Minister, will preside over an aggressive programme of communal mobilisation the Shiv Sena hopes will keep it in power.

The coup to depose Manohar Joshi was executed with finesse. On January 30, Joshi himself did not appear to be aware of the fact that he was about to be removed from office. He spent most of the day in Pune, meeting Marathi literary figures involved in a writers' conference. On his return to Mumbai late in the afternoon, a curt fax message from Thackeray demanding his resignation was waiting for him at the Chief Minister's residence. Joshi promptly told Thackeray on the telephone that he would honour the demand. At 6-45 p.m., Joshi drove to the Raj Bhavan and handed over his resignation letter to Governor P.C. Alexander. Members of the Legislative Assembly were informed of the resignation and of Rane's appointment at a previously scheduled legislature party meeting that night.

The demand for Manohar Joshi's resignation had been building up since the Nagpur session of the State legislature. At a dinner meeting of Shiv Sena MLAs, Rane had accused Joshi of using the threat of defection from the party to secure his own position. Sources told Frontline that the final move was, however, made after an intense campaign within Matoshree, Bal Thackeray's residence. Both Smita Thackeray, the Shiv Sena supremo's daughter-in-law, and Raj Thackeray, his nephew, had been pushing Rane's case. Bal Thackeray's son Uddhav Thackeray also made his dislike for Joshi and his son Unmesh clear. The three are believed to have told Bal Thackeray that incompetent governance had eroded the Shiv Sena's constituency almost beyond repair and that he had to act before it was too late.

The choice of a successor was, however, not simple. Rane's case received a boost because of his proximity to Raj and Smita Thackeray, whom he has cultivated assiduously since the mid-1980s. Some people believed that being a Maratha, Rane would be able to counter the Congress(I)'s influence in the politically decisive community. Among the other contenders for the Chief Minister's post was Trade and Commerce Minister Diwakar Raote. According to rumours circulating in the Shiv Sena, Raj, a long-time party worker who has begun to feel alienated following his uncle's growing patronage of his son Uddhav, was also pushing for elevation to office. Whatever the truth, Rane emerged as the consensus candidate.

BJP leaders were told of the decision to replace Joshi with Rane only on January 29. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan, the central figure in mediating the BJP's growing differences with the Shiv Sena, was by most accounts delighted to see the last of Joshi. Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, who had been in the forefront of the State BJP's war with the Shiv Sena, was equally euphoric. Their reasons were anything but altruistic. A Brahmin identified with a centre-right political position, Joshi appealed to an important segment of the BJP's own constituency. More important, he was instrumental in thwarting the BJP's desire to play a central role in the process of governance.

For Thackeray, the conflict with the BJP does not appear to have been a major consideration. Joshi had offered to resign after the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance's debacle in the State in the last Lok Sabha elections. However, Thackeray turned down the offer. On March 23, 1998, Thackeray publicly criticised Joshi for corruption within his government and for his supposed friendship with Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar. Joshi again offered to resign, but the offer was again rejected. In August, Joshi sought to mend fences with the Shiv Sena chief and launched an uncharacteristically aggressive attack on the findings of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry on the role played by Bal Thackeray in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. Joshi made it clear that he would resign rather than order the arrest of the Shiv Sena chief.

However, even this desperate display of loyalty proved inadequate. In December, Rane launched his assault on Joshi. He said that an anti-Shiv Sena political mobilisation by Ganesh Naik, Suresh Nawale and Gulabrao Gawande, Shiv Sena Ministers who had been dropped from the Government, had served to keep Joshi in power. Rane concluded that the possibility of a split in the Shiv Sena was kept alive by Joshi for this very reason. The fact that Bal Thackeray did not reprimand Rane for this outburst was lost on no one. Later, Bal Thackeray said that if the Bombay High Court passed any strictures against Joshi in the course of an ongoing litigation over a property transaction involving Joshi's son-in-law Girish Vyas, he would be removed from his post immediately.

Around the same time, the BJP began a flanking operation against Joshi. Munde tabled the contents of a Criminal Investigation Department inquiry into a controversial Sahara India resort project in which Joshi appeared to have shown more than a little personal interest (Frontline, January 9, 1998). The BJP made clear its displeasure with regard to the allegations of corruption against Welfare Minister Babanrao Gholap, who was alleged to have embezzled funds meant for the development of members of backward castes. Thackeray's pet projects, including the supply of electricity free of cost to farmers and housing for 40 lakh slum residents and a massive wage increase for teachers, were systematically scuppered by the BJP. Joshi's inability to push through these proposals infuriated Thackeray.

However, Joshi's worst crime as perceived by the Shiv Sena chief was his failure to aid the Shiv Sena's pre-election mobilisation. As Thackeray's campaign against the India-Pakistan cricket series gathered momentum, Joshi was expected to use the State's resources to extend support. But when Munde ordered the arrest of 14 Shiv Sena workers for vandalising the office of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in Mumbai, Joshi proved powerless to respond. This is believed to have provoked Bal Thackeray's anger at a January 28 meeting of Shiv Sena Ministers. There was no point in having a Shiv Sena Government, he is said to have shouted, if the party cadre could not be protected from arrest. Sources told Frontline that Joshi's efforts to attribute responsibility to Munde only provoked the Shiv Sena chief further.

After the swearing-in on February 1, from left, Governor P.C. Alexander, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, former Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and new Chief Minister Narayan Tatu Rane.-VIVEK BENDRE

In retrospect, the January 28 meeting sealed Joshi's fate. Bal Thackeray made clear his displeasure over the arrests of the party cadre and what he felt was the inability of Shiv Sena Ministers to push through the party agenda.

If Bal Thackeray expected a new aggression from Joshi, he was to be disappointed. At a meeting of the coordination committee of the BJP and the Shiv Sena on January 29, which was attended by Bal Thackeray, Pramod Mahajan, Uddhav Thackeray, Manohar Joshi, State BJP president Suryabhan Wahadane and the BJP's former general secretary Sharad Kulkarni, Munde ensured that his party got its way. Earlier, Shiv Sena-inspired directives such as raising the age of retirement for government employees from 58 years to 60 years were revoked. A separate department for the welfare of nomadic tribes was created, and Munde's demand for a hike in the procurement prices of cotton was accepted in principle. Thackeray's proposal to supply electricity to farmers free of cost failed to get through after the BJP questioned the feasibility of a Rs. 800-crore budgetary provision required to implement the plan. The ease with which the BJP triumphed at the coordination committee meeting may have been the proverbial last straw.

RANE'S first action after taking over as Chief Minister was to strip Joshi's confidants of important portfolios and empower Ministers perceived as being close to the Thackeray family. Independent MLAs who support the Government emphasised their centrality to the survival of the regime by securing 10 ministerial berths, two more than what they had during Joshi's tenure. A spate of transfer orders have been issued to bureaucrats too.

Besides, decision-making in the government itself is in the process of being transformed. Cabinet meetings will now be preceded by a meeting of four Ministers, in which Rane, Munde and Finance Minister Mahadev Shivankar will, in consultation with the Minister concerned, arrive at a decision on issues. The subsequent Cabinet meeting will serve only to authorise this decision formally.

Perhaps the most significant of all will be the political consequences. Although the BJP reacted with smug satisfaction when it heard of Joshi's dismissal, it is not clear for how long the complacency will last. Much of the BJP's political strategy is premised on ensuring that the factions of the Republican Party of India do not ally with the Congress(I). This alignment proved catastrophic for the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in the Lok Sabha elections. The appointment of Sanghpriya Gautam, a one-time associate of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, as the general secretary of the Maharashtra BJP unit also signals the party's determination to find a Dalit constituency. Leaders of the BJP believe that if Joshi's exit will enable them to win back their upper-caste constituency from the Shiv Sena, Rane's Maratha credentials will leave them free to pursue their programme of expansion among Dalits.

Rane could, however, turn the tables on the BJP. For one, the Shiv Sena seems set to return to a more sharply communal agenda than what it pursued in its first four years in power. Its vitriolic attacks on Dilip Kumar and Shabana Azmi during its campaign seeking a ban on the screening of Deepa Mehta's film Fire and its agitation against the India-Pakistan cricket series appear to be mere rehearsals for bigger mobilisations. Such mobilisations would attract much of the BJP's core Hindutva constituency and sabotage its hopes of emerging as the principal party of the political Right in Maharashtra. Secondly, Rane is unlikely to be as ineffectual as Joshi was in resisting the BJP's claims to a large share of power. Finally, Rane could succeed in strengthening the Shiv Sena by bringing back dissidents such as Ganesh Naik into its fold.

CURIOUSLY, the Congress(I) appears to be wholly ineffectual in its response to latest developments. Both Madhukar Pichad and Chhagan Bhujbal, leaders of the party in Maharashtra's Assembly and Legislative Council respectively, have promised to lobby with independents and Shiv Sena dissidents in the build-up to the confidence vote Rane will face in the Assembly on February 17. However, Bhujbal left for Kerala on February 3 to undergo ayurvedic treatment there - a sign that is not indicative of energetic political resolve. Sharad Pawar too is believed to be hurt by party president Sonia Gandhi's apparent endorsement of forces hostile to him during her recent campaign in Maharashtra. Except for ritual condemnations of the Government's conduct, the Congress(I) does not appear to have a coherent plan.

That could prove to be costly in the months to come. Many people believe that Rane's rise to power could enable the Shiv Sena to strengthen further its presence in Maharashtra's politics. Signs of a strengthening of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance are already evident. Twenty-six of the 44 independent MLAs (the highest number so far to support the Government formally) have written to the Governor, expressing their support for Rane. These developments have come at a time when the Congress(I) appears unlikely to sustain its successful Lok Sabha alliances with the Samajwadi Party and the factions of the RPI for the Assembly elections in 2000. If Rane provides a reasonably efficient government and if the Shiv Sena succeeds in generating communal polarisation, the Congress(I) may just be in for an unpleasant surprise in March 2000.

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