Matoshree, a landmark address primarily known over the years as a parallel power centre in Mumbai, is in for an image makeover. After playing the eminence grise to perfection from behind or not-so-behind the scenes for years, the Thackerays have finally chosen to drop their remote and take power directly into their hands. With Uddhav Thackeray set to assume charge as the chief minister of India’s richest state on November 28, Maharashtra is witnessing the metamorphosis of a kingmaker who did not want to be the king in the first place. Uddhav, the 59-year-old son of the late Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray, had self-admittedly never imagined that he would ever become the chief minister. But here he is, heading a multi-party coalition government led by Shiv Sena, which turned the tables on the BJP, its pre-poll ally, after a bitterly fought political battle that lasted 33 days.
But will it be an uneasy crown to wear for a seemingly reluctant chief minister, if not accidental, as the leader of a ragtag coalition which comprises allies with diametrically different ideologies? It will fall under its own contradictions, says outgoing chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, whose failure to cobble up the requisite numbers propelled Uddhav to the saddle. “A government on two wheels runs well and even an auto-rickshaw with three wheels runs well, but if the wheels of a three-wheeler start moving in different directions, it will not run for long,” Fadnavis said before tendering his resignation on November 26.
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Many political observers concur with Fadnavis. A common objective to keep the BJP away from power might have brought NCP and Congress closer to Shiv Sena, but it appears to be the unlikeliest collaboration of antithetical political entities. Both NCP and Congress have always opposed Sena’s aggressive policy on Hindutva, as well as on various other issues such as its stand on minorities, construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, frequent assault on north Indian migrants by Sainiks, and in recent times, the demand for Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar. It, therefore, has already cast a big shadow on the survival of the government. But coalition leaders are optimistic that the new government will run smoothly for five years and more on the basis of a common minimum programme which will keep all contentious issues out of it. “A common minimum programme is being worked out for smooth running of the coalition government,” says senior NCP leader Nawab Malik. “There should not be any problem.”
Nonetheless, there are issues such as construction of Mumbai metro and a proposed bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, to name a few, where these parties might find it difficult to reach a consensus. On ecological grounds, the Sena had already taken a tough stand against the construction of a metro shade at Aarey Colony in Goregaon, where more than 2,100 trees were felled before the polls. The party had then announced that it would shift the metro car shade elsewhere if it came to power. Now, it might not find ready support from Congress and NCP since it would not only further delay the project by a few years but also cause huge financial losses to the state exchequer. Also, the three parties have to take a joint call on whether to support the ambitious bullet train project for which the state has to contribute a sizeable chunk of the total cost. The new coalition also has to sort out distribution of key portfolios such as home, revenue, agriculture and urban development at the outset. Above all, it has to guard itself against any Karnataka-like situation where the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led coalition government was toppled by the BJP, barely few months after its formation.
Until now, the three parties have managed to stand united, but it remains a big challenge for the Sena-led coalition to insulate itself from any possible poaching bids by the BJP, the biggest party in the assembly with 118 MLAs, including independents. The saffron party needs the support of only 27 more legislators to upstage the Uddhav government. Given the fact that many NCP, Congress and Sena legislators are known to be not quite happy with the composition of the new coalition, chances of the emergence of a disgruntled bloc within each of the parties, especially after distribution of ministerial berths, cannot be ruled out in the days ahead.
On October 24, when BJP and the Sena together won 161 (BJP 105, Sena 56) seats to get a comfortable majority in the 288-member Maharashtra assembly, setting the stage for the second consecutive five-year term Fadnavis, who could have foreseen Uddhav as the chief minister? At the time, all Uddhav wanted was a commitment from the BJP that the post of chief minister would be rotated equally between the two parties over the next five years. Catching his ally unawares, he announced that he had after all a promise to keep, which he had made to his father Balasaheb Thackeray in his lifetime that a Shiv Sainik would be installed on the chief minister’s chair one day. Post-polls, he apparently thought that the time to redeem that pledge could not be delayed further. Uddhav also emphatically claimed that BJP president Amit Shah had agreed to a 50:50 formula for power sharing, including chief ministership, during their pre-election discussions at Matoshree earlier this year.
The BJP was quick to brush aside his claims, with Fadnavis saying no such agreement between the two allies had ever taken place, but his assertion raised Uddhav’s hackles. “Shiv Sainiks do not believe in the politics of lies,” he fumed. It soon led an aggrieved Uddhav to snap all ties with the BJP and threw Maharashtra into a vortex of political turmoil that lasted nearly a month. But if Uddhav could eventually beat the BJP in the game of one-upmanship, he owes it to one man—a Maratha strongman called Sharad Pawar, who lent his political heft behind the Sena chief all through the high-voltage drama.
Pawar, 79, who had spearheaded a spirited battle against the BJP-Sena combine in the polls, is no stranger to such political drama, but this time he was up against two formidable rivals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah. He was, therefore, cautious enough not to be seen as someone desperate to grab power through the backdoor by forging an ‘unholy’ alliance with an ideologically different party. At the same time, he had no qualms in conveying a message to the Sena that neither NCP nor the Congress would be interested in extending support until it severed ties with the BJP.
The Maratha strongman apparently wanted to leave no scope for the Sena to return to the BJP before he agreed to step forward for negotiations. And it was only after the resignation of Arvind Sawant, Shiv Sena’s lone Union minister in the Modi government that Pawar decided to act as a bridge between Uddhav and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and explore the possibilities for installing a non-BJP government. After protracted talks in New Delhi and Mumbai, he convinced the Congress to join the government under a common minimum programme, setting the stage for the formation of a Sena-NCP-Congress government. But picture abhi baaki thi!
A day before the leaders of this coalition were supposed to meet governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and stake claim to form the government, Ajit Pawar, his trusted nephew and the second-in-command in his party, rebelled and hopped over to the rival camp in an overnight coup. A day later, Fadnavis was sworn in as the chief minister along with Ajit as his deputy. A seven-time legislator, Ajit was apparently miffed with uncle Sharad for not pressing the demand for rotational chief minister because the Sena and NCP had a difference of barely two MLAs in the new assembly.
When Pawar woke up to the news of Ajit’s rebellion in the morning, he quickly got into damage-control mode. First, he had to dispel the impression that had quickly gained ground that he was the real brain behind Ajit’s move. Second, he had to keep his flock of newly elected legislators united by his side. So while other coalition leaders got together to challenge the governor’s decision in the Sureme Court, he managed to lure back even those party MLAs such as Dhananjay Munde who had initially gone with Ajit. In an apparent show of strength, he also brought together as many as 162 MLAs from different parties at a Mumbai hotel.
A three-judge bench of the apex court directed a floor test on November 27 through open voting under the supervision of the pro-tem speaker. Pawar replaced Ajit with Jayant Patil as the NCP’s legislature party leader. With little time to drum up support of his party MLAs, Ajit drove to Fadnavis’s residence to resign after expressing his inability to get the numbers required for the trust vote. Left to fend for himself, Fadnavis too had no choice but to quit a few hours later, less than four days after he was sworn in for his second term. His decision to seek support of Ajit, who is facing multiple corruption charges, has since earned him brickbats from within a section of his own party in the state, especially for the way some cases of the irrigation scam were closed within hours after Ajit joined his government.
Ajit returned to the party, saying he was, is and shall remain in NCP, a remark which prompted some political commentators to see his rebellion as being stage-managed by none other than his uncle to upstage the BJP. At the end of all the high drama, Pawar has emerged as the main architect and troubleshooter of the new government, heralding the triumphant comeback by a man who was written off by his adversaries before the election. It will not be a surprise if Uddhav turns to him more often than not in the days to come to seek his advice for smooth running of the coalition government given the sharp ideological differences between the allies. From now on, it will not be Matoshree but Silver Oak, Pawar’s residence in upscale south Mumbai, which will be known as the new address of Maharashtra’s kingmaker.
By Giridhar Jha in Mumbai