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It’s an impasse only a few would have foreseen when it became clear on October 24 that Maharashtra’s mandate, though not exactly overwhelming, was in favour of the ruling alliance of BJP and Shiv Sena. The BJP would have believed that the stage was set for the return of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis for his second consecutive term after a five-year tenure, a distinction none of his predecessors since Vasantrao Naik (1963-75) could boast of. The saffron brigade bagged a majority in the 288-member assembly with the BJP and the Sena winning 105 and 56 seats respectively. And yet, even a week after the results, Fadnavis’s swearing-in has been put on hold amid a piquant political situation arising out of an unexpected spanner in their coalition wheel.
After being forced to play second fiddle for the past five years, the BJP’s mercurial ally, Sena, is playing hardball—staking claim to an equal share in ministerial berths and has also pressed for a rotational term of chief ministership for a period of two-and-a-half years each. Last week, once it became clear that the numbers of his major ally had considerably reduced in the new assembly, Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray called upon the BJP to enforce the so-called 50:50 formula for government formation in keeping with its “promise”, which he claimed had been made by BJP president Amit Shah during his visit to the Thackeray residence, ‘Matoshree’, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections this year. His party subsequently made it clear that it would not take a single step until the BJP hands over a written assurance to follow the 50:50 pact, a stand that threw Maharashtra politics into a tailspin.
The Sena’s precondition sent temperatures soaring in the BJP camp. Fadnavis initially sought to placate his ally, saying everything would be done as per mutual understanding. But as the Sena upped the ante over the next few days, he refuted Uddhav’s claims on the formula. Even as the battle of barbs between the warring allies intensified over the week, Fadnavis was elected the leader of the BJP legislature party for the second time on October 30, when he sought to mollify the sulking Sena by thanking all his allies, especially Uddhav, for the victory of the coalition. “The mandate of voters of Maharashtra is for the mahayuti (grand alliance), which is going to form the government.”
After being forced to play second fiddle for five years, the BJP’s mercurial ally, Sena, is playing hardball to keep Fadnavis waiting.
The Sena responded quickly, asserting that the BJP-Sena ties were intact and they would work together for the state. But it betrayed no sign of a truce by reiterating its demand for a written assurance from the BJP that it would fulfil its promise. The Sena has now called its legislature party meeting on October 31. Amid burgeoning uncertainty, the BJP leaders, however, are hopeful that everything would fall in place soon. “Our government will be formed in the next four-five days,” says BJP legislator Sudhir Mungantiwar.
The root cause of the post-poll sabre-rattling between the pre-poll allies over power sharing may well be attributed primarily to the electoral reverses both the parties, especially the BJP, faced this election. In 2014, when the two parties had contested the assembly polls separately, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party with 122 seats, while the Sena got 63. Later, both joined hands to run the government. This time around, their alliance was widely expected to sweep the elections with more than 200 seats. But the results are a letdown for both parties because as many as eight ministers from the coalition government, including Pankaja Munde, bit the dust.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t without a reason that the BJP-Sena alliance had generated such high expectations in the first place. In the general elections barely five months ago, it won 41 of the 48 seats in Maharashtra. Since then, a few key decisions of the Narendra Modi government—such as scrapping of Article 370 and criminalising triple talaq—appeared to have further consolidated the position of the alliance. Absence of any formidable Opposition was believed to be another factor in their favour. Though the Congress stitched up a pre-poll alliance with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), both parties had their fair share of problems all through the poll campaign. Many of their leaders, including legislators, had switched over to the BJP-Sena camp while their workers looked a demoralised lot after their crushing defeat in the general elections. Against this background, the resurgence of the Opposition in the polls left the ruling alliance stunned. However, it was the Sena’s aggressive stand that proved to be the double whammy for the BJP.
Shiv Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray (in white shirt) with his father Uddhav and other family members after his victory in the assembly polls.
Poll analysts believe that the BJP-Sena standoff is nothing but political posturing which would ultimately end after the intervention of their senior leaders. According to them, the Sena has resorted to pressure tactics to get the deputy chief minister’s post apart from some key portfolios like home, which it did not have in the previous government. At the time of going to the press, the Sena is still keeping its cards close to its chest, sparking speculation as to what would happen if it refuses to budge from its stand on power sharing? Will it snap its alliance with the BJP and explore another avenue to form the government with the NCP-Congress alliance?
Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, all of 79, has emerged as the ‘man of the match’ in the Maharashtra electoral battle.
The impasse has also shifted the focus to battle-scarred veteran Sharad Pawar, who led his alliance in this election from the front to slow down the BJP-led juggernaut. At a time when he had been written off as a spent force because of his advancing age and failing health, the 79-year-old Maratha strongman dug deep into his political experience and resources to put up a spirited fight, which not only helped his party’s candidates but also those of the Congress. Curiously, Pawar was initially not expected to hit the campaign trail with such vigour, but filing of an FIR against him in an old corruption case by the enforcement directorate (ED) seemed to have spurred the warhorse into action.
Making the most of the challenge by trying to convert it into an opportunity at the hustings, he volunteered to present himself at the ED office for questioning, saying he would not be available later because of the polls. His move, dubbed as a masterstroke in the political circles, not only earned him sympathies of his core voters but also infused a fresh lease of life in his party cadres. Even at his age, Pawar travelled about 200 km a day on an average to address nearly 80 rallies regardless of the weather. A picture of him addressing a rally in Satara amidst heavy rains became a talking point this election.
At all his rallies, he invariably concentrated on local problems such as farmers’ distress, rising unemployment or poor economy to counter issues like Article 370 and nationalism raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in their campaign. It is believed to have struck a chord with the electorate and contributed a great deal to the victory of 44 Congress candidates and 54 NCP nominees, 13 more than teh alliance’s last tally. Many poll observers believe that their tally would have improved had Pawar got ample support from the Congress. During electioneering, Rahul Gandhi addressed only five rallies in the state, while interim party president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra abstained. The party’s top leaders in the state such as Prithvitraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan remained primarily preoccupied in their respective constituencies. The BJP-Sena alliance had apparently not expected the Pawar factor to click, especially in rural belts, because his party had been hit by large-scale defections of senior leaders, including several legislators, shortly before the polls.
Pawar, dubbed by many as the ‘man of the match’ in the Maharashtra poll battle, has since categorically ruled out the possibility of having any truck with the Sena. “We have the mandate to sit in the Opposition and we would do so efficiently,” he says. A witness to many a fluid political situation in the past, in the state and beyond, he is unlikely to lay his cards on the table in a hurry and, in all probability, might prefer to remain in a wait-and-watch mode until the saffron allies put their swords back into their sheaths. After spending more than five decades in politics, he has proved that there is hardly any substitute to experience, especially in adverse circumstances.
Maharashtra Possible Scenarios
1 BJP-Sena patch up, reach an agreement on power sharing and form the government either with Devendra Fadnavis as CM again or on a rotational basis
2 Sena, with 56 MLAs and support of six independents, stakes claim to form the government. The NCP’s 54 and Congress’s 44 MLAs extend support from outside to keep BJP out of power.
3 BJP, with 105 legislators, stakes claim to form government, with the support of NCP, either as an ally or from outside
4 BJP stakes claim to form government. NCP abstains from the trust vote and helps the saffron party prove majority in 288-member House with support of independents.
5 Major split, either in NCP or Shiv Sena, helps BJP form the government without Sena
By Giridhar Jha in Mumbai