Maharashtra’s ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition goes through a rocky patch

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray (centre) and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar (to his left) on the first day of the monsoon session of the Maharashtra Assembly, in Mumbai on July 5. Photo: PTI

Maharashtra’s ruling coalition goes through a rocky patch amid rumours of the Sena and the BJP coming together again.

Ever since the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) consisting of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress was formed in 2019, there have been some unsettling aspects that prevented the coalition from projecting a completely united image.

One of the aspects has been the determined efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to destabilise the government. The other has been the grumble of the Congress that, from the very start, it is not on an equal footing with the Shiv Sena and the NCP in the government. Both these came to the fore yet again in the last weeks of June.

Adding to the political confusion is Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s growing confidence as the result of his being at the helm for one and a half years now. Though he always had aspirations to be Chief Minister, he also knew that he had a lot of learning to do and was not ashamed of expressing this. He learnt fast and well from his teacher Sharad Pawar, the NCP supremo, who, in turn, never flaunted the fact that he was the guiding hand. The partnership even won praise from critics of the Sena.

However, over the past few months there have been indications that Uddhav Thackeray is ready to assert himself even if it is just for the sake of being assertive. Some see this as a precursor to the Sena moving back to a partnership with the BJP with which it had parted ways in 2019 following the Assembly election over the question of chief ministership.

In April, the Chief Minister sent for review by the Chief Secretary a decision taken by the NCP’s Jayant Patil, Minister for Irrigation, to allot funds for an irrigation project. Later, the NCP’s Jitendra Awhad, Minister for Housing, found that Uddhav had set aside his plan to allocate flats for cancer patients under treatment at the Tata Cancer Hospital. Ultimately, both projects proceeded as initially planned but Uddhav Thackeray’s intervention raised eyebrows.

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There was also a silent war between the parties after the Congress’ Nana Patole resigned as Speaker of the Vidhan Sabha in February and took over as the State Congress president. The Speaker’s chair has been vacant since then though the Congress believes that it should go to one of its members.

The Congress has repeatedly felt slighted and short-changed in the coalition. Nana Patole has gone to the extent of saying that the coalition may not last its full term. He also said that his party would fight the upcoming local body elections and the next Vidhan Sabha election on its own. Patole even subtly suggested that he would like to be Chief Minister.

BJP’s moves

The BJP has been using all means to destabilise the MVA. On the last day of the monsoon session of the Assembly (a two-day session because of COVID guidelines), BJP MLAs used abusive words against the presiding officer over the government’s decision to seek data from the Centre on Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

The plan backfired because 12 BJP legislators were suspended for disrupting the proceedings. Supporting the suspension, Uddhav Thackeray termed their behaviour “shameful”.

On June 20, Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik wrote to Uddhav Thackeray urging him to revive the party’s partnership with the BJP. Sarnaik’s reasoning was feeble as it was apparently driven by personal motives. The Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) has been investigating him in connection with the Topsgrup security services for alleged kickbacks in facilitating a contract for employing 500 security guards at the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. The E.D. said Sarnaik got 50 per cent of the ‘proceeds’. The allegations were denied by all the persons concerned.

In January this year, the E.D. took over 112 plots belonging to a company owned by Sarnaik. It is these incidents that prompted him to urge Uddhav Thackeray to join forces with the BJP again so that he and others like him would not be “harassed” by the investigation agencies. Sarnaik also asked whom the MVA coalition was actually benefitting.

The MVA believes that the Centre is using its power over the investigation agencies to destabilise the State government. The E.D. is also investigating the NCP’s Anil Deshmukh, former Home Minister. The latest to appear on the E.D. radar is Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of the NCP whose purchase of a sugar mill is being probed allegedly because of irregularities in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, which is controlled by the NCP. The Sena’s Anil Parab has been named in charges levelled by former Mumbai Police officer Sachin Vaze. He alleged that Parab had asked him to collect money from contractors. The State BJP is demanding a probe against Parab.

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There are apprehensions, sparked by Saranaik’s letter, that the BJP will try to engineer defections. In an attempt to close ranks, Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and senior leaders of the coalition met in the first week of July to discuss possible chinks in their armour.

The election for the post of Speaker is one of the issues discussed. In the 288-member House, the MVA has the support of 154 members—56 of the Sena, 54 of the NCP and 44 of the Congress. The BJP has 105 legislators. The MVA hopes that smaller parties and independent legislators too will support it. It received 169 votes in the trust vote in 2019 when the coalition was formed and took over the government. It hopes to retain the same strength.

Rumours of realignment

The rumour about the Sena and the BJP getting together again has been doing the rounds ever since they parted ways. Uddhav Thackeray has never hidden the fact that he believes in Hindutva and that the temple at Ayodhya is central to his beliefs. From the time of the MVA’s formation in 2019, the BJP has kept up steady pressure on the coalition in an effort to break it. Sources indicate that the saffron party is now desperate enough to have made an offer to the Sena that if it breaks up with the MVA and renew its partnership with the BJP, Uddhav Thackeray can continue to be Chief Minister. As of now there is no indication of the Sena accepting it, but considering that the denial of chief ministership was the sole issue on which the Sena broke away from the BJP it could be a tantalising offer.

Uddhav-Modi meeting

Despite differences with the Centre over the handling of the COVID crisis, Uddhav Thackeray met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on June 8. After meeting with other Ministers to discuss State-related issues, Uddhav Thackeray and Modi spent half an hour closeted together. It was their first meeting after the break-up in 2019.

Uddav Thackeray seems to be clear about one thing—the partnership with the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra does not mean that he will join them at the national level as well. Sharad Pawar had invited him to be a part of a meeting of the Rashtra Manch at his house in Delhi in June, but Uddhav Thackeray did not attend it. The Manch is an attempt to present a viable opposition to the BJP in the Lok Sabha election in 2024.

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Uddhav Thackeray has preferred to stay silent on future alliances. If the Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna is any indication, the party joining the NCP and Congress at the national level seems unlikely. It praises Modi’s leadership and derides Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

While both Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray have, so far, asserted that the coalition is strong and will complete its five-year term, they are also wisely keeping an eye on the BJP which, as always, is waiting for its moment to step in and regain power in the State.

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