Questions that arise from the dramatic turn in Maharashtra politics can broadly be put in three baskets: moral, political, and ideological. We shall deal with the moral first and the ideological last. The first will take us the least time and words, and the last one the most.
The morality question on the bulldozing by defection in Maharashtra is easily answered. To begin with, the MVA government itself was born in sin. The Shiv Sena had contested jointly with the BJP against the NCP-Congress combine. After the elections, it defected to the rivals instead. That was amoral, cynical realpolitik, as is the engineered collapse now. In any case, only the naive look for morality in politics.
Morality sorted, we move on to politics. It is one thing to acquire power, it’s quite another to keep it. The Shiv Sena grabbed power in one swift and brilliant political move, which its split with the BJP was. There was no reason for the split other than that they wanted the chief ministership, never mind that their winning MLAs (56) were just about a half of the BJP’s 105.
When the BJP declined, they switched to the old UPA allies. They had no problem handing over the chief ministership to Uddhav. It wasn’t theirs to begin with. The Sena was bringing them an improbable gift: turning defeat into victory. There was nothing to lose now. There was also on that side the ultimate practitioner of realpolitik, Sharad Pawar, to convince a doubting Congress.
Now, if we go back two-and-a-half years and check the media archives, almost all observers, pundits, and analysts had predicted that the government would be unstable and short-lived. The first turned out to be untrue. The government was stable and cohesive. Short-lived, it was.
The Congress (it was my view) was the most likely to topple this rickety three-legged stool because at some point it would get fed up with the Sena’s Hindutva politics. More people, however, thought that it would be the NCP because it is known to be mercurial and ideologically fungible with power. Nobody — at least nobody I have read or listened to — suspected that the fall would come because the Shiv Sena would walk away or disintegrate. In this case, a bit of both happened.
How does one explain that? The widely accepted logic in our politics is that power is the stickiest glue.
How did the Thackerays, with full control of their party, government, police, and intelligence, never figure out that the ground was slipping from under their feet?
As is well known among political circles now and as confirmed by the BJP’s lawyer-MP Mahesh Jethmalani to my colleague Jyoti Malhotra in this interview, the party had been in touch with Shinde secretly for more than two years.
If the Thackerays never got a whiff, it indicates some incredible political incompetence. One brilliant move might enable you to snatch away power from the strongest. But it takes eternal vigilance — and smarts — to keep it. This is where the Thackerays proved to be a disaster.
Which brings us to the issue of ideology. Eknath Shinde and his people say they left seeking ideological purity. Thackeray’s was a betrayal. It follows that they claim they are much closer to their real selves in the BJP’s warm embrace. Two further questions arise from this. One, how uncontentious was the ideological harmony between the BJP and the Sena before the 2019 split? And the second, what exactly is the Sena’s ideology?
Again, the first is easier to answer. For a decade now, since the passing of Balasaheb Thackeray (17 November, 2012) and the rise of Narendra Modi as a national figure, Uddhav has worried about the ideological ground slipping away to the BJP. He has fretted to people that Balasaheb probably erred in shifting from pure Maharashtrawad to Hinduwad (regionalism to Hindutva). On the Marathi Manoos plank, nobody, not even a Modi, could challenge him. He had to be a national leader after all. But on Hindutva, in the course of time, Modi would look more convincing than the Sena. He was right.
A series of elections showed how the Hindu vote was shifting from the Sena to the BJP. While the national party had begun as a junior partner, way smaller than the Sena, now it galloped closer, overtook it, and outnumbered it 2:1 in 2019. Alarms ringing, Uddhav moved to reverse it, but too late.
Instead of going towards deeper Hindutva, he sought to buy power, solace and time in the secular camp. It took him further away from his Hindutva proposition.
Which brings us to the second point: what is the Shiv Sena’s ideology? We might say it’s been a convenient mix of extreme ethnic chauvinism and unforgiving Hindutva. The first goes on all the time, and often manifests in things as silly as the defacing of signboards not in Marathi to attacks on intellectuals.
The second, hard and often violent Hindutva, rises when the opportunity arises, as during the 1992-93 riots. But, within that, the party retained space to manoeuvre. In 1992-93 the party cadres did what they did to the Muslims. But Balasaheb could also publicly show his support to actor Sanjay Dutt, arrested under anti-terror laws then with deadly weapons in his home.
The senior Thackeray, you see, could do anything. He could swing any side. Sometimes to both within hours. There was a reason he never wanted a Thackeray to hold formal power. He wasn’t going to be the king. Nor was he going to be just the kingmaker. He was the don. And like Napoleon, believed that the throne was just an overpriced piece of furniture.
Some time on a Saturday in late 2001, my phone rang at night and the caller said Balasaheb wanted to speak. I immediately figured that that morning my National Interest had appeared where I referred to him as a mafioso. I braced myself for a shellacking. Instead, he was all charm. “Of all the people who abuse me,” he said, “you write the most delightfully.” And then added for effect, “unlike that (so-and-so) Rajdeep Sardesai.” I presume he was perfectly capable of calling Rajdeep and saying something worse about me to him.
“If you find my writing so delightful, what are you doing for me, Balasaheb,” I asked. He offered me dinner in Mumbai, asked if I’d bring my wife along, if we ate meat or drank wine. I said yes to all. “But remember,” he said, “I drink and serve only white wine. Red wine is good for the heart, and you know that I am a heartless person.”
That dinner at Matoshree did happen. And much talk was about how “incompetent or dishonest” Suresh Prabhu (then his party’s minister in the Vajpayee cabinet) had been in claiming inability to make any money for the party. There was none of the hypocrisy you encounter on money with the political class in general.
His two grandsons were prancing around the living room. One, I think Aaditya, wore one of those World Wrestling Federation (WWF) T-shirts featuring a then famous shaven-headed wrestler. “Arrey, why are you wearing this (so-and-so) Pritish Nandy shirt,” he asked.
“How can you speak about Pritish like this,” I asked, “He’s your party’s MP.”
“That is the problem. Took Rajya Sabha from me, but (so-and-so) never told me he’s Christian or I would never have given it to him.”
Some of it got recorded subsequently in a 2007 interview on NDTV’s ‘Walk The Talk’, coinciding with his 80th birth anniversary. A picture from that interview, white wine in our hands, a tiger and Michael Jackson on the wall, is among my prized possessions.
I brought him back to money and politics. He said he had complained to Pramod Mahajan about
Prabhu not making any money for the party. That Mahajan told him if anybody said it wasn’t possible to make money as a minister, he was lying or incompetent. There was never a moment of hesitation. He knew the art of monetising power.
That, truthfully, was the real ideology of the Sena. Mostly protection money if not extortion. By taking over as chief minister, Uddhav took his party away from it. You couldn’t be holding power and still running such a humongous private operation. That loss of ‘ideology’ is also what Shinde’s Sainiks might be complaining about.
Also read: Being Sharad Pawar