When Maharashtra, and the rest of the country, slept on the night of November 22, it appeared certain that Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena would become the state’s next chief minister (CM). He, it seemed then, had the clear support of both the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and the Congress, which had come around after initial ambivalence.
When Maharashtra, and the rest of the country, woke up the following morning, the state had a new CM. But it wasn’t Thackeray. The last CM, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Devendra Fadnavis, was back in power. Ajit Pawar, who was, till Saturday, the official leader of the NCP legislative party (and also happens to be the party patriarch Sharad Pawar’s nephew) was the new deputy CM.
From the unlikely Sena-NCP-Congress alliance within inches of grabbing power, Maharashtra suddenly appeared to have an equally unlikely BJP-NCP alliance saddled in power. The stunning twist in the tale – which no one saw coming, and perhaps less than a dozen individuals had an inkling of – shook the entire polity. But the story did not end there, and it continues to remains fluid.
The BJP claims that all 54 members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of the NCP are backing the government, and it will comfortably cross the majority mark. Sharad Pawar claims that Ajit Pawar acted on his own; there are only 10-11 MLAs who have moved and that some of them are moving back; Fadnavis will fail to prove his majority on the floor of the house; and the NCP-Sena-Congress alliance will stay intact. The Congress, which was initially suspicious of Sharad Pawar on that Saturday morning, came around to giving him the benefit of doubt by the evening and is banking on him to turn the political wheels around once again.
Beyond the intrigue, the drama, and the family wars, the entire episode throws up several issues about the larger practice of Indian democracy.
The first issue is about the nature of a mandate. In recent years, voters in many states have decided to give a clear mandate to one party or leader. When that happens, there is a clear winner, the CM is strong, and the government is stable. But decisive verdicts have often created a situation where the winner becomes excessively strong and is perceived as functioning in an authoritarian manner. This is true of West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee, Uttar Pradesh under Yogi Adityanath, or even Tamil Nadu under the late Jayalalithaa. At the same time, when voters have chosen to give fragmented verdicts, parties have had no choice but to work together in the spirit of accommodation. But this has generated political instability, encouraged horse-trading, weakened governance, and left the state more corrupt. This is, most recently, true of Karnataka.
One could argue that in Maharashtra, politically speaking, the clear verdict was in favour of the National Democratic Alliance (the BJP and the Sena together had a majority, and they did have a pre-poll alliance), but the rift between the two, left the door open for instability in a hung assembly. So here is the dilemma. Exceptionally strong verdicts potentially lead to weakening of democracy, fragmented verdicts potentially lead to instability. What is happening in India’s most important economic centre today is the latter.
The second issue is the role of ideology and interests in political decision-making. Maharashtra has shown, in recent weeks, the hollowness of claims of ideological commitment on both sides. This is ironical, for the government at the Centre is among the most ideologically committed India has had in recent times, and the Opposition leaves no opportunity to claim it is fighting an ideological battle. But despite being tied together by Hindutva, the Sena left the BJP. Despite being a “secular formations”, the NCP and the Congress conveniently backed the Sena. Despite having accused the NCP in general, and Ajit Pawar in particular, of large-scale corruption, the BJP had no issues stitching an alliance with him and making him the deputy CM. No side comes out looking clean from the political churn. And unfortunately, things aren’t settled yet.
But if ideology becomes secondary, it is interests, incentives and motivations which provide the primary explanation for actions. Here is what brought Uddhav Thackeray-Sharad Pawar-Sonia Gandhi together. The Sena feared being marginalised under the shadow of the BJP and could not resist the temptation to install its own CM; Sharad Pawar saw an opportunity to return to power, and he was unhappy at the BJP’s aggression in poaching leaders from his party and the pursuit of cases against them. The Congress feared its local leadership would rebel if it did not get on board, and smelled an opportunity to keep the BJP out, and a chance to rule one of India’s richest states. And then here is what appears to have led to the BJP-Ajit Pawar pact. The BJP recognised that losing Maharashtra would be count as a big setback politically (remember the state sends the second largest number of Lok Sabha MPs and is the country’s most important financial and industrial hub). It could also potentially weaken the NDA further and embolden smaller allies. Ajit Pawar, with or without his uncle’s consent, appears to have been motivated by both the desire for power but also the fear of corruption cases against him, which the Centre is in a position to expedite or slow down.
The final issue is of Constitution, convention and process. President Ram Nath Kovind spoke at a Governor’s conference and highlighted their role in the constitutional system. But there is a widespread perception that state governors often become an adjunct of the party in power at the Centre. This was true during the era of the Congress rule; it is true now.
In the case of Maharashtra, Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari’s decision to give 48 hours to the BJP to stake claim to form the government – as opposed to the 24 hours he gave to the Sena and the NCP – and his decision to recommend President’s rule even when the political process was evolving, had drawn criticism earlier. During that weekend (Friday-Saturday), the speed at which his office sent a report to the Centre to lay the basis for revoking President’s rule, and the alacrity with which he conducted the swearing-in early in the morning, has raised eyebrows. It is open to question whether this promptness would have been shown if the government of the opposition was about to be formed.
Put it all together. The shifting alliances, the incongruity between pre-poll rhetoric and post-poll tactics, the defections, the pursuit of narrow self-interest, and the violations of process do not paint a pretty picture.