When Plan A fails, the back-up plans often don’t work either.
Amit Shah’s first and most fatal calculation was that the Shiv Sena has no options. After Maharashtra assembly results came out on 24 October and the Shiv Sena took to maximalist posturing, Amit Shah didn’t feel the need to give in to its blackmail. He didn’t massage its ego, assuage its concerns, didn’t take that flight to Mumbai, that drive to Matoshree to bend before Uddhav Thackeray with folded hands.
Amit Shah seems to have thought the Shiv Sena needed the BJP more than the BJP needed the Shiv Sena. The pressure from the Congress MLAs, however, gave the Shiv Sena a lifeline. The Congress MLAs wanted the fruits of power.
When the NCP and the Congress surprisingly came onboard, Amit Shah was check-mated. Not one to give up, he came up with Plan B, wooing Sharad Pawar. Surely, Pawar didn’t talk about farmers’ issues when he met the Prime Minister in Parliament just a week ago. Sharad Pawar’s statements around the time of the meeting sounded vague.
A little birdie tells us what happened in the meeting. According to this source, Sharad Pawar told the Prime Minister he was open to an alliance with the BJP if it could make him an offer better than the one he already had. Pawar hinted the BJP would have to offer him the chief minster’s chair. Amit Shah was also pulled into the meeting, but the duo refused.
Ajit Pawar was Amit Shah’s Plan C. When the deal with Ajit Pawar was struck, he started calling up NCP MLAs he considered loyal to him. To split the NCP without incurring the wrath of the anti-defection law, the BJP needed 36 MLAs. Ajit Pawar showed in a few hours he commanded the loyalty of at least 11, said the source. It seemed a risk worth taking. Besides, he already had the signatures of all the NCP MLAs to use before the governor, thus enabling an immediate invite to Devendra Fadnavis to take oath.
The same evening, Sharad Pawar showed he had almost all the MLAs with him. In such situations, MLAs usually go where they think government formation is more likely. That is why it was important for the BJP to have Devendra Fadnavis immediately sworn-in.
But the NCP MLAs knew they got their votes in the name of Sharad Pawar, not Ajit Pawar. When all the machinations are done, the victors in politics are those who have mass support.
Plan C also failed, the BJP had clearly over-estimated Ajit Pawar’s hold over the NCP MLAs.
Legitimising an unholy alliance
The BJP’s abrasive midnight coup crossed all limits of morality. Revoking President’s rule, accepting shady paperwork from Ajit Pawar, inviting Fadnavis to form government and having him sworn-in — all of this between dinner and breakfast showed Modi-Shah as hungry power-grabbers, who will do anything to get another chief minister’s office under their belt.
This unseemly show has legitimised what seemed until the other day an unholy alliance. The dominant BJP uses its muscle so brazenly that it pushes everyone to the wall, forcing erstwhile foes to come together in an unlikely alliance.
What changed between 2014 and 2019
If there is an ideological contradiction in the Congress and the NCP supporting a Shiv Sena government, there is also a glue: the shared fear that the BJP is out to finish us all. If anti-BJPism is becoming a raison d’être for non-BJP parties, the BJP has only itself to blame.
The BJP’s illegitimate attempts at splitting the NCP MLAs have given the NCP a reason to help make this alliance work. It has left the NCP with a cause to work towards: keeping the BJP out. The NCP workers were seen shouting slogans in Mumbai Tuesday, saying Sharad Pawar was Modi-Shah’s ‘baap’ (father). In 2014, Sharad Pawar was offering to support the BJP, to keep the Shiv Sena out. He enabled a BJP minority government to win a trust vote, leaving the Shiv Sena with no option but to come around on the BJP’s terms.
What has changed between 2014 and 2019 is that friends and foes alike don’t trust Modi-Shah. That is why Indian politics has seen the rise of a new paradigm: anti-BJPism. The new polarisation is not Hindutva versus secularism, since everyone has embraced saffron, including the Congress. Indian politics is now divided between those who surrender before the brute power of Modi-Shah and those who fight back. (Those who just sit and twiddle their thumbs are in the surrender category.)
Bringing friends and foes together
For the Congress party, whose irrelevance in Indian politics threatens its very existence, there was no option but to trust Sharad Pawar to go with the Shiv Sena. At a time when the Modi government is putting senior Congress leaders in jail, what incentive does the Congress have to not prevent a BJP government in Maharashtra? Even if that means walking with the Shiv Sena.
On its part, the Shiv Sena was being pushed to the wall like no one else. Not so long ago, it was the senior ally of the BJP in Maharashtra. Not only did the BJP make it the junior partner in the alliance, but also made it clear the alliance was based on a use-and-throw principle. So, the BJP was nice to the Shiv Sena when it needed the party before the Lok Sabha elections. Once it won 303 seats on its own, it gave the Shiv Sena only one cabinet berth. One ministry for 18 Lok Saha MPs. The Akali Dal also got one ministry with just 2 MPs.
Since the rise of Modi in 2014, the Shiv Sena has had good reasons to fear that the BJP wants to finish off the Shiv Sena. It was for survival that it joined hands with the NCP and the Congress — not an easy decision for the party, either.
For the BJP, the lesson from Maharashtra is – wield your power lightly. If you leave people with nothing to lose, they’re definitely going to hit back for sheer survival.
Views are personal.