The last thing one expected from the dyed-in-the-wool saffron party Shiv Sena was to ascend to power on two crutches, the Congress and the NCP. Both the parties have been sworn enemies of the saffron brigade for more than four decades in Maharashtra politics.
And that is why the Shiv Sena put up a grand show at Shivaji Park for the swearing-in of Uddhav Thackeray as the chief minister of Maharashtra Thursday. It was a sign the Hindu Hriday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray’s son had to give to the party faithful to assure them that there is no change in the colour of their brand of Hindutva in the rainbow coalition. ‘Gained nothing lost everything’ is an adage that best applies to him now.
While I wish him well, it is unlikely that this regime in Maharashtra will last even six months.
The Shiv Sena can savour the moment of borrowed glory, but not for long. The Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government may not last long, not because it is a wishful thinking of the BJP. The dynamics of coalition politics does not allow such an artificial alliance to stick together for long. It does not benefit the Congress to share power with the Shiv Sena and squander away its vote bank, or whatever little is left of it. The highly unpredictable Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) too may not like to partner with the Shiv Sena for too long at the risk of losing its vote share and economic and administrative clout in Maharashtra.
It would be easier to predict the weather than the twists and turns in Maharashtra politics, at least as long as Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar is in command. In the last few days, he has more than once proved that ‘Pawar saheb will always have the last word in government formation in Maharashtra’.
Don’t underestimate rivals
There are several key lessons for all the parties in the Maharashtra episode.
The BJP, it seems, started off on the wrong foot from day one. In the run-up to the assembly election, the party’s glee over the ED notice to Sharad Pawar in relation to a scam in a state cooperative bank was hard to miss. However, while speaking to the media, the BJP spokespersons maintained that “ED has taken action as per the procedure”.
But the Maratha strongman was not amused.
The BJP then poached one of his trusted lieutenants Udayanraje Bhosale, got him to resign as an NCP MP and made him contest on a BJP ticket. Pawar ensured Bhosale tasted defeat.
Then, the BJP, as a single-largest party, foisted Pawar’s nephew Ajit as the deputy chief minister in a coup. In a quick move, Pawar fortified his camp and turned the tables on the BJP in less than 48 hours. The prodigal nephew is back with the NCP, and will eventually be re-admitted into the Pawar camp.
The biggest lesson for the BJP is never to underestimate the strengths, covert and overt, of its political adversaries.
The Congress was almost written off in Maharashtra with no tall leader anywhere in sight. Besides, it was evident that the state and central leadership were not on the same page on a number of issues.
Yet, its alliance with the NCP prevented the splitting of the crucial Maratha votes. As a result, both the parties retained and even marginally improved their seat share compared to 2014.
BJP needs to read new books
Poaching existing leaders from other parties and promoting lightweight non-entities will not help the BJP storm the Pawar stronghold.
The lesson for the BJP is – wait for the right moment but keep building inroads in western Maharashtra through confidence-building measures. Further, the party needs to read some new books on how to keep old friends and win over new ones.
The BJP could have roped in both the Shiv Sena and the NCP to form a new coalition. This would have meant forgoing some important portfolios. But, at this juncture, it was important for the BJP to be in power, especially when elections in Jharkhand are around the corner.
It should not come as a surprise to the BJP if some of its allies in other states now start contemplating a shift in their position. It may not happen overnight but political realignments can be quick.
It is not principles vs pragmatism
The BJP and the Shiv Sena have always kept their doors wide open to allow free entry of turncoats. Nearly half of the current strength of the BJP is made up of ‘outsiders’, who joined the party in 2014 or later for reasons other than ideological.
Nothing can stop these turncoats to return to where they originally belonged. It is always difficult for a cadre-based, ideologically sound party to compromise with principles for the sake of convenience and political expediency. The BJP should know that in politics, principles and pragmatism are not two sides of the same coin. They run parallel.
Not easy for NCP, Congress either
For the Congress, supporting a Shiv Sena-led government is like trying to remain afloat with an albatross around its neck.
It’s tie-up with the NCP will not allow the Congress workers to operate independently in the NCP stronghold constituencies. The party will continue to play second fiddle to the NCP, and now to the Shiv Sena as well, much to the chagrin of loyal workers.
The Congress should stop dreaming about a Congress-NCP merger – Pawar will not allow that in Maharashtra although he is aware that the NCP’s pan-India reach is limited.
But the NCP too is a one-man army. The party has no second-rung leadership, cadre base or ideological moorings. It has its origin in an ego clash between Pawar and former Congress president Indira Gandhi. The many layers of agricultural-economic outfits, sugar cooperatives and rural banks that Sharad Pawar has built may not operate as a political bulwark for long.
Aware of the constraints, Pawar himself has suggested that it is time for the revival of the Congress but has advised the Gandhi family not to take the leadership issue for granted.
Maharashtra politics has shown that every party has many arrows in its quiver. And, one never knows who will shoot the next arrow.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.