"The court's verdict is a well-deserved slap in the face of the Governor and has increased the people's faith in the judiciary and democracy in the country...What a fine, swift, decisive victory for the moral standpoint: for democracy, for the Constitution."
These are not my words, nor are they uttered in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday (which happened to be Constitution Day), bringing a dramatic denouement to the political battle in Maharashtra.
These are the remarks made by Atal Bihari Vajpayee on February 22, 1998, and one hopes today's leaders and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party pay serious attention to them. The BJP's founder spoke these uncharacteristically harsh words after ending his fast-unto-death protest against the arbitrary sacking of Kalyan Singh's government in Uttar Pradesh by the state's then Governor, Romesh Bhandari, and the fraudulent manner in which he swore in Jagdambika Pal as the new Chief Minister. Vajpayee ended his fast after the Allahabad High Court swiftly struck down the Governor's unlawful decision.
But do read those lines again. How uncannily apt they sound today in the context of the failed midnight coup in Maharashtra, plotted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah (who also happens to be the president of the ruling party), and executed by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari in Mumbai, with the connivance of none other than Ram Nath Kovind, the President of India.
The midnight coup failed only because of the Supreme Court's courageous order asking the BJP's scandalously installed chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to face the floor test the very next day - as against the 14 days granted by the Governor. More significantly, the top court also ruled that there would be no secret voting by MLAs and that the entire proceedings of the floor test should be telecast live. Under this court-mandated sunshine of transparency, the BJP's dark conspiracy was fully exposed. The party could not repeat its 'Operation Kamal', code for purchasing opposition MLAs with huge sums of money, making them resign their seats in the legislative assembly, and thereby winning the floor test in an assembly of reduced effective strength. This corrupt operation had ensured the survival of BS Yediyurappa's government in Karnataka. The BJP's top leaders had reckoned the same would help Fadnavis and his new-found ally, Ajit Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, win the floor test in Maharashtra.
How the 'midnight coup' unfolded, how and why it collapsed, how the events administered "a well-deserved slap on the face of the Governor", and, ultimately, how the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress came together to form the government in the state - these facts are by now well known, and do not merit retelling. What is important is the likely impact on national politics of the most unexpected birth of the three-party coalition, under the Chief Ministership of the Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray. I see five important outcomes:
1) For the first time since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he has suffered a serious damage not only to his personal reputation but also to his political legitimacy. The fame he had acquired was one of invincibility, captured in the colloquial slogan "Modi hai toh mumkin hai!" (Nothing is impossible for Modi). His failure to pull off the audacious power grab in Maharashtra has dented this reputation. But the damage done is not just to his personal stature, but also the moral stature of the high political office he occupies. For the first time in the past five and a half years, Modi (along with his deputy, Amit Shah) has been exposed for his central role in making the President of India and the Governor of a state colluders in a stealthy plot of power grab. Both Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi and Raj Bhavan in Mumbai are expected to act as impartial custodians of the constitution. But both are today seen as connivers in its subversion.
2) An important pillar of Modi's reputation, at least in the eyes of the common people who have given him a massive mandate, is that he is a foe of corruption and that he will not team with corrupt politicians. This reputation too has suffered a dent because of his green signal to the BJP in Maharashtra to ally with Ajit Pawar, against whom not only his party colleagues in the state but he himself had levelled grave allegations of corruption. The message that the fiasco in Maharashtra has sent to the people across the country is that Modi is ready to make all kinds of compromises to grab (or retain) power. Moreover, he is also seen to be misusing the coercive machinery of the state to selectively target his political opponents. This message can be potentially very hurtful because several prime ministers in the past have lost power when corruption scandals became defining issues in elections.
3) The developments in Maharashtra have given a big boost to opposition unity and opposition politics in various states as well as at the national level. Millions of political activists belonging to various parties must be thinking today: if the Congress (along with its breakaway group, NCP) and the Shiv Sena can come together to isolate and defeat the BJP in Maharashtra, after crossing the abyss of ideological differences between the, surely it is possible to forge similar anti-BJP unity in other states. Moreover, the Shiv Sena's success in challenging the BJP will embolden BJP allies in states like Bihar to explore alternative poll alliances. The saffron area on India's political map has already shrunk considerably after 2018. It could surely shrink further in the coming years, raising strong possibilities of a non-BJP government at the centre after the next parliamentary elections. The fact that political pundits as well as common people have started thinking of these possibilities within six months of the beginning of Modi's second term in office is itself an eloquent pointer to how quickly the political climate in India can change.
4) The BJP's ignominious exit from power in Maharashtra, and the entry of the Congress in the new coalition government, will herald the revival and rise nationally of the Congress. This will take time, but it is bound to happen. After all, the Congress is the only other national party around which other anti-BJP parties can coalesce. True, its performance in parliamentary elections was abysmal. But its victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Punjab, along with its near victory in Gujarat, and now its presence in a coalition government in Maharashtra, clearly show that the BJP's talk of a "Congress-Mukt Bharat" is nothing but an empty boast. At the same time, the developments in Maharashtra also show that the Congress will have to live with the imperative of partnering with strong state-level parties that are anchored in regional pride and aspirations. Therefore, the challenge before the Congress leadership is to design a new paradigm of national politics that draws strength from both India's socio-political diversity and also from a new vision of India's unity which is radically different from that of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.
5) The re-emergence of a strong leader, Sharad Pawar, who will surely play a major role in transforming national politics in the coming times. At the age of 79, this warrior leader has captured the imagination of many people in the anti-BJP political space in India. Without his gritty and guiding role, there would have been no coming together of the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress in Maharashtra. With this success, he has also cemented the ties between his own party and the Congress, both at state and national level. The trust deficit between him and the top Congress leadership, especially Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, is now a thing of the past. He can also play a catalytic role in the re-unification of the splintered Congress Parivar.
All in all, the self-goal by Modi and Shah in Maharashtra will accelerate the pace of change in national politics. People's suffering due to the prolonged economic slowdown and the public perception of a widening gap between Modi government's promises and performance will add new momentum to the cry for change. To counter this, the BJP can be expected to further sharpen its politics of polarisation, and mount further assaults on democratic norms and institutions. But, no, it will not help.
Modi has to reinvent himself or else yield to the coming waves of change.
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.