Coalition conflicts in Maharashtra

Print edition : August 29, 1998

Following the Shiv Sena's apparent plans to revive aggressive communal mobilisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party is reconsidering its troubled relationship with its alliance partner in Maharashtra which has been severely indicted for its role in the Mumbai riots of 1992-93.

DURING this monsoon season, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition in Maharashtra has come to resemble some of Mumbai's high-rise buildings: fissured and with cracks and perhaps even heading for collapse. On August 18, Ministers belonging to the BJP boycotted a scheduled Cabinet meeting, an action that amounted to a vote of no confidence in the Government of Chief Minister Manohar Joshi. Although the ostensible ground for this unprecedented move was differences between the president of the Mumbai unit of the BJP, Kirit Somaiya, and State Housing Minister and Shiv Sena leader Sureshdada Jain over a housing project in Mumbai, it takes little to see that this development reflected a deeper conflict. If the Shiv Sena's perceived involvement in acts of extortion and its corruption have discredited the BJP by association, the Shiv Sena's apparent plans to revive aggressive communal mobilisation threaten the BJP's efforts to undergo a makeover as a responsible party of power. "We would be better off sitting in the Opposition rather than drowning along with the Shiv Sena," a high-level BJP source told Frontline. "The day the Union Government goes, the Maharashtra Government will go with it." But the Congress(I), the principal Opposition party at the Centre and in the State, and the party that in the perception of many leaders is best equipped to herald that day, seems strangely reluctant to do so, in New Delhi and in Maharashtra.

The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission Report on the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 was the vehicle that propelled the subterranean conflict between the BJP and the Shiv Sena to a new stage. Authoritative sources told Frontline that the State unit of the BJP had been pushing for the report to be tabled in the Assembly, a demand the Shiv Sena resisted for as long as it could. The BJP's motives were simple. The report's indictment of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and his inner circle for directing an organised programme of violence against Muslims offered the BJP considerable leverage over its coalition partner. For this reason, in the State Cabinet the Shiv Sena resisted the BJP's moves and used its six MPs to argue its case in New Delhi. But in the end, public pressure and the legal compulsions forced the Shiv Sena to agree to table the report. Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister Gopinath Munde was charged with the business of preparing a draft Action Taken Report (ATR). This draft, sources told Frontline, was distributed by the Home Department a fortnight before August 6, the day the ATR and the Srikrishna Commission Report were to be discussed.

Chief Minister Joshi, by most accounts, was less than delighted with the fruits of Munde's labour. The draft ATR was silent on the Commmission's observations against Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. All of Justice Srikrishna's 78 recommendations in the light of the role of officials in the riots were either accepted or "noted". There was no commentary on parts of the report that made no explicit recommendations. Even worse, the draft ATR said that the Government "broadly agrees with the observations of the Commission about the background of the riots." These observations included the comment that "the Kar Seva planned in Ayodhya, the Ghanta Naad programme, and the increasing opposition to these programmes by the Muslims" paved the way for the riots. The draft ATR accepted that there had been political interference in police work and promised to act to end it. Even Justice Srikrishna's finding that communalised "police personnel indulged in arson, looting and actual participation in the riots" received a commitment of "appropriate action".

Top leaders of the Shiv Sena and a core team of bureaucrats were recruited by Joshi to work on the draft ATR. A new set of observations were tagged on to the draft, defending both the Shiv Sena and the Mumbai Police. Munde's draft accepted that "communal thinking by the police is dangerous" and that it was necessary to "exorcise the police force of this evil and inoculate it against it". But the additions to the ATR rejected the proposition that "the police were biased against the Muslims." How this claim was reconcilable with Munde's commitment to "weed out communal elements and enhance the secular character of the force" was left unexplained. The acceptance of Justice Srikrishna's advice that a "continuous process of education will ensure that members of the police force attain maturity and become secular" also became mystifying given the Shiv Sena-authored assertion. The Shiv Sena added the claim that the police "brought the riots under control in minimum time and handled the riots effectively," a claim that took away from the credibility of the ATR's acceptance of proposals to overcome police shortcomings.

According to those present at the Cabinet meeting that approved this ATR, Munde made no effort to resist the additions. The BJP chose to register its protest by other means. The Home Minister responded to rumours of imminent communal strife by bringing two dozen additional companies of the Gujarat Armed Police, the Rapid Action Force and the Central Reserve Police Force to Mumbai. The personnel were deployed outside the offices of the Shiv Sena, to the amusement of observers. Sources said that Thackeray's son Udhav Thackeray and Muslim leader Maulana Kashmiri were summoned to a closed-door meeting and told bluntly that any effort to set off a riot would be put down ruthlessly. "Munde knew that the Shiv Sena was itching for a riot," one of his associates told Frontline. "That would have benefited the Shiv Sena electorally in Mumbai, as Hindu consolidation would have taken place. The BJP, both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, would have been discredited."

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray with Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Gopinath Munde at a "peace meeting" in Mumbai on August 19, a day after Ministers belonging to the BJP boycotted a Cabinet meeting.-VIVEK BENDRE

True to the BJP's expectations, the Shiv Sena attempted to use the Assembly debate on the Srikrishna Commission Report to seize the Hindutva high ground. Joshi launched into an aggressive speech, charging the Srikrishna Commission Report with being "anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim and biased". "One community and its leadership has been held responsible," he continued, "while the other has been more or less absolved." The findings against Bal Thackeray, Joshi asserted, were "totally distorted statements." He further said that his Government was rejecting the report's findings, a claim that is somewhat curious given that the sections authored by Munde accepted its recommendations.

Joshi's motivation in delivering his attack, observers believe, was to convince Thackeray of his loyalty. The Shiv Sena chief had in recent months made no secret of his displeasure with the Chief Minister and had on more than one occasion hinted darkly of a leadership change.

On August 13, speaking at the anniversary function of the Shiv Sena magazine Marmik, Thackeray said that his party would contest in all future elections on a Hindutva platform. This, he said, was necessary because "the nation is passing through a critical period." The remarks came as a surprise, for the Shiv Sena had tended to avoid its tactic of overt communal attacks ever since the election of three senior Shiv Sena leaders - Subash Desai, Ramesh Prabhu and Suryakant Mahadik - was set aside by the Bombay High Court since they had sought votes on religious grounds. Shiv Sena MP Mohan Rawle is facing court proceedings on these grounds. Another important point about Thackeray's remarks was that the Shiv Sena seemed to be anticipating an election in the foreseeable future.

The BJP now chose a flanking manoeuvre to rein in the Shiv Sena. The chosen battlefield was the Shivshahi Housing Project, a Shiv Sena-inspired plan to rehabilitate slum residents. The first shots were fired by Somaiya, who claimed that the project was intended not for slum residents, but "to rehabilitate builders". Flaws in the scheme, he said, would bring builders a profit of Rs.250 a square foot of built area, and put the State Government up to it ears in debt. Housing Minister Jain, in turn, used the term with reference to Somaiya which questioned his level of intelligence.

The war of words escalated, prompting Thackeray to call at the Marmik function for Ministers not to air their disagreements through the media.

Munde, however, had no intention of calling a truce. Shortly after his return from a tour of several districts on August 17, he initiated a series of meetings with the State leadership of the BJP to consider the party's course of action.

At 9 a.m. on August 18, Manohar Joshi arrived at Mantralaya, the Maharashtra Secretariat, for a Cabinet meeting. The BJP Ministers did not show up. The Chief Minister sent desperate messages to Munde's office, just down the corridor, but received no response. Two BJP Ministers, Anna Dange and Eknath Khase, eventually conveyed their party's decision to boycott the meeting. Shortly afterwards, Munde sent over a one-page letter, outlining the reasons for the extraordinary action. It claimed that the decision was driven by the Shiv Sena's refusal to put in place BJP-inspired programmes, such as the establishment of an autonomous corporation for the advancement of the Other Backward Classes and the regularisation of forest lands occupied by tribal people. The letter also complained that cases filed against those who participated in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation had not been withdrawn by the State Government. The Shiv Sena, Munde's letter said, "has always given step-motherly treatment to the BJP... We tolerated ill-treatment since it was our sincere desire that the alliance should complete its term." The threat could not have been more clear.

All through the day on August 18, Munde remained in his office, meeting a string of party workers and favour-seekers, apparently oblivious to the panic down the corridor. A proposal for a peace meeting at Bal Thackeray's residence, Matoshri, was summarily rejected by the BJP, which proposed a meeting at a city hotel instead. Thackeray caved in, and agreed to a conclave at the Centaur Hotel the following day.

At the end of a six-hour meeting, the BJP agreed to attend Cabinet meetings, upon receiving an assurance that the Shivshahi Project would be referred to a joint review committee for reconsideration. Its demands for the withdrawal of cases relating to the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, the setting up of a corporation related to OBC matters and the regularisation of tribal people's lands were also accepted. "Since all the demands raised by the BJP have been resolved, it should not hold a grudge against the Shiv Sena or the Chief Minister," Thackeray said later. Joshi, he said, would now complete his five-year term.

Leaders of the Maharashtra unit of the Congress(I) at a meeting with Governor P.C.Alexander on August 11 to demand the dismissal of the Shiv Sena-BJP Government.-VIVEK BENDRE

Few people would, however, share that confidence. For one, it is clear that the extreme measure of boycotting a Cabinet meeting was the outcome of a protracted war of attrition. More important, both the Congress(I) and the BJP have been flirting with the growing ranks of Shiv Sena dissidents. The Shiv Sena's Navi Mumbai leader Ganesh Naik, sacked from the Ministry this May after he refused to resign, has been actively mobilising party MLAs. A trade union leader with business interests in quarrying and transport, Naik has been joined by two other deposed Ministers, Gulabrao Gawande and Suresh Nawale.

At a rally in Beed on August 16, Nawale said that the three were technically still part of the Shiv Sena, but "mentally and physically out of it." "We will expose the misdeeds being carried out by the Shiv Sena and the State Government," Nawale said. Congress(I) heavyweight Sharad Pawar is believed to be in touch with the group, which is rumoured to command the loyalty of over 20 MLAs. Munde, too, is believed to be cultivating the dissidents, and some people say that he played a key role in organising the Beed rally.

Although Pawar has been preparing ground for a palace coup, the central leadership of the Congress(I) seems reluctant to bring down the Shiv Sena-BJP Government. Its strategies in respect of the Srikrishna Commission Report have so far been guarded, and restricted to ritual displays such as a motorcade-rally to the Governor's residence in Mumbai and and a protest demonstration by its MPs in New Delhi. Congress(I) leader Chhagan Bhujbal too has been reluctant to endorse the Samajwadi Party's aggressive mobilisation against the Shiv Sena, arguing that it may provoke a backlash. Party president Sonia Gandhi has stopped short of demanding the dismissal of the Maharashtra Government. Much of this reticence appears to stem from suspicion of Pawar, who recently incensed Sonia Gandhi's supporters in the Congress(I) by stating that the choice of a future Prime Minister would be contingent on the support of its coalition allies. Pawar, in turn, has been complaining in private that the central leadership's determination not to allow independent leadership initiatives is compromising the party's position in Maharashtra. One of his associates told Frontline: "It is all very well to say we should wait for this Government to fall, but a lot of things can change in a year and half. All it would take to change everything is one Shiv Sena-engineered riot."

What is certain is that the BJP is reconsidering its relationship with the Shiv Sena. The last Lok Sabha elections saw the Hindu right-wing suffer humiliating defeats throughout Maharashtra. The BJP finds its core electoral base, ranging from middle-class professionals to Gujarati and Marwari business interests, being alienated by alleged Shiv Sena extortion and lumpen tactics. Although this audience endorses the Hindutva concept, it opposes riots and the economic dislocation they bring.

The Shiv Sena, however, perceives overt communal mobilisation to be crucial to its survival. At the grassroots level, stark contrasts between the Shiv Sena's 'street' political idiom and the BJP's brahminically-oriented culture have made cooperation near-impossible. But the interests of the Maharashtra unit of the BJP have been subordinated to those of the national party, and the Shiv Sena has nothing to gain from the coming to power of a dispensation less sympathetic on the Srikrishna Commission Report. With the question about the future of the BJP-led coalition Government in New Delhi looming large, the compulsions to carry on with a troubled marriage could weaken substantially.

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