Political drama in Maharashtra

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Devendra Fadnavis handing over his resignation as Chief Minister to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari in Mumbai on November 8. Photo: PTI

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray with Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray addressing a press conference in Mumbai on November 8. Photo: PTI

Following the BJP-Shiv Sena rift over sharing power, Maharashtra comes under President’s Rule for the third time in its history.

MAHARASHTRA heads towards its 60th year on an inglorious note. On November 12, the State was placed under President’s Rule for the third time since its formation on May 1, 1960. However, it is the first time that Article 356 has been invoked because of the inability of political parties to form the government after an election.

In the October 21 election to the 288-member State Assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance received a clear mandate from the electorate, the BJP winning 105 seats and the Shiv Sena 56. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) won 54 seats and its ally, the Congress, got 44. The BJP and the Shiv Sena had a clear majority with 161 seats, and it was a given that the incumbent ruling coalition would continue in power. But soon after the results were out, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray raised what is now referred to as the 50-50 question. That is, rotational chief ministership: the first half of the five-year term for a BJP Chief Minister and the second half for a Sena Chief Minister. The BJP baulked at the idea, saying it had no memory of such an agreement.

On November 10, the BJP, which emerged as the single largest party, told Governor B.S. Koshyari that it did not have the numbers to form the government. Enraged at being called a “liar”, Uddhav Thackeray upped the ante and ordered Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant to resign from the Narendra Modi Cabinet, formally sealing the end of the Sena-BJP alliance. Sawant was the Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises in the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. “The BJP has taken a lot of strides in Maharashtra in the pursuit of falsehood. The Shiv Sena’s side is the truth. Why stay in Delhi government in such a false environment? And that is why I am resigning as a Union Minister," Sawant said on his resignation.

Meanwhile, talks between the Shiv Sena and the NCP (which party supremo Sharad Pawar had earlier confidently dismissed, saying he was content to be in the opposition) resumed. Soon after, embarrassing moves to prevent horse-trading began, with the newly elected MLAs being sent away to “resorts” and effectively protected from being lured by rival parties. On November 11, the Shiv Sena was unable to produce letters of support from the Congress and the NCP. The party requested more time, but the Governor declined and invited the NCP, since it is the third largest party, to show its ability to form the government.

On November 14, two days after the imposition of President’s Rule, the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress announced that the draft of a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) was ready to be reviewed by the leaders of the three parties. The CMP was drawn up on the basis of the commonalities in the election manifestos of the three parties. Once approved, “things will move towards forming the government”, said the NCP’s Chaggan Bhujbal at a press briefing. On a separate note, Bhujbal’s reappearance on the political scene is interesting, given the political exile he had been in because of a money laundering case against him. The former Shiv Sainik’s seemingly prominent role in the current proceedings also underlines the fact that there are no friends or foes in politics. When Bhujbal defected from the Shiv Sena in 1990, the Shiv Sena founder, Balasaheb Thackeray, had hurled abuses at him and Shiv Sainiks surrounded Bhujbal’s ministerial bungalow baying for his blood. At the time, Bhujbal dramatically enacted for this correspondent how he scuttled from one room to another in fear of the Sainiks waiting outside.

After the Governor refused to give the Shiv Sena more time to form the government, the party, in protest, petitioned the Supreme Court contending that the Governor’s decision in rejecting its claim was “ex-facie arbitrary, unconstitutional and violative of Article 14”. The apex court refused the Shiv Sena an urgent hearing. The party fumed over the declaration of President’s Rule. An editorial in the party’s newspaper Saamna alleged that this was all part of a “scripted act… [one in which] it looked like some invisible power was controlling this game and decisions were taken accordingly”.

It turns out that Uddhav Thackeray made a mistake by sticking to his guns. A Congress insider said: “Uddhav’s rawness in the political arena has been exposed. Instead of playing the game and flowing with the tide, he kept saying that the 50-50 formula had been agreed upon. It may have been. It may not have been… we may never know what actually happened, but an experienced leader would have worked it out so that the party stayed in power. This way he has achieved nothing. His voters are disappointed. BJP voters feel he has let them down. His son, Aaditya Thackeray, who won his debut election, should be sitting in the House but is not. It is not Uddhav’s fault but since he stuck to his guns he did not allow the political game to be played out.”

Although there was talk of the possibility of President’s Rule, its actual imposition seemed to have occurred in a sudden rush. After the BJP said it was unable to form the government, the Governor extended the same invitation to the Shiv Sena. As the deadline for the Sena’s answer neared, the party asked for more time to get support from the Congress and the NCP. The Governor refused and invited the NCP instead. Even while the NCP, the Congress and the Shiv Sena were working out the modalities of a partnership, President’s Rule was declared.

This was one of two curious deviations that stood out in the process. The Shiv Sena was given 24 hours to prove its majority, but the NCP was given a much shorter deadline. What also drew comments was the possible reason for this rush. While a three-party meeting of the NCP, the Congress and Shiv Sena was on, the Governor recommended President’s Rule to the Centre, causing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to convene a Cabinet meeting to decide on the recommendation. With the Cabinet approving the recommendation, Modi left New Delhi to attend the BRICS conference in Brazil.

President’s Rule was invoked in Maharashtra for the first time on February 17, 1980. Maharashtra saw some political action in this period. Sharad Pawar, who was a Minister in Vasantdada Patil’s Congress government, broke away from the Congress in 1978 and formed the Indian National Congress (Socialist) and allied with the Janata Party and the Peasant’s and Worker’s Party to form a coalition government called the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF). Pawar became the Chief Minister. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dismissed the Pawar-led PDF and President’s Rule was imposed as soon as she returned to power. With the Assembly dissolved, fresh elections were held and the Congress was elected to power. A.R. Antulay was installed as Chief Minister.

Maharashtra once again came under President’s Rule when Prithviraj Chavan resigned as Chief Minister after the Congress’ ally, the NCP, withdrew support to his government. President’s Rule was imposed from September 28 to October 31, 2014. Elections were held early (the Assembly’s term was to have ended in 2015). The BJP won the elections and Devendra Fadnavis became the Chief Minister.

Governor Koshyari has given the political parties six months’ time to form the government. The draft of the CMP is due to be discussed and finalised. The Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress are keen to keep the BJP out of power, but the situation is too fluid for any clear picture to emerge. The game, as politicians have been referring to the sequence of events in Maharashtra, is still up in the air.