The Wednesday night call from Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has got the Maharashtra Chief Minister what he's desperately in need of - an election. 24 hours after the phone call, the obdurate governor of Maharashtra, BS Koshyari, a card-carrying member of the BJP before his appointment in Maharashtra, formally asked the Election Commission to hold elections for the nine vacancies on Maharashtra's legislative council; with the strength of his three-party alliance, Thackeray is certain to win one of them.
The Election Commission today said that the election would be held before May 27. That means Thackeray will be elected just in the nick of time to the Maharashtra legislature. If this does not transpire, he will have to resign.
Thackeray who did not contest the Maharashtra assembly elections in November has to become a member of the legislature within six months - or step down. That six-month window expires on the 28th. It was all looking pretty tight till earlier this week which is why Thackeray SOS-ed Modi.
As always, there's a whole lot of political capital being exchanged behind the scenes. When Thackeray phoned the PM, he complained that the lack of initiative in calling the election was a blatant attempt to have him disqualified from his job. With the elections postponed on account of the lockdown, Thackeray's cabinet had twice recommend to the Governor that he name Thackeray to one of the two seats on the council that he gets to appoint. The Governor did not comply.
Modi's intervention will enable him to soften and further his image as an elder statesman of Indian politics who put Maharashtra's need to fight the raging pandemic above petty politics. Sources say Thackeray pinged the PM after Koshyari bluntly told him that he would not be nominating him but reportedly hinted to Thackeray that a phone call to Modi might persuade him to petition the Election Commission to the hold the election. Thackeray's key aide Milind Narvekar worked his rolodex to set up the all-important call with Modi. The call was slotted into the PM's schedule. Modi was reassuring but noncommittal, saying that he would find out what was hitch was.
Modi now has a personal IOU from Thackeray and BJP leaders say this will go a long way to repair the ruptured relationship between the BJP and Thackeray's Shiv Sena, who ended their decades-long alliance after the last election.
The break up was motivated by Thackeray feeling insulted over the BJP treating him like a second class citizen in the alliance. Sharad Pawar, arguably the craftiest politician in the country, fished in troubled waters and conjured up an unlikely government in Maharashtra with the Congress, Sena and his own Nationalist Congress Party.
Despite the multi-dimensional drama, signs of a thaw are now visible. In the last session of parliament, Pawar spent a lot of time in Modi's chambers in the House. Modi had earlier publicly called Pawar his "political guru".
Since at the time the BJP was engaged in pulling down the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, perhaps Pawar gave Modi and Amit Shah a tip or two on how to replace Kamal Nath's government with one led by their party.
The Congress, which is the junior-most partner in the Maharashtra government, has reason to feel anxious over the bonhomie, however superficial, of its partners with the central leadership of the BJP. From the beginning, Rahul Gandhi was against the Congress participating in a government that included the Sena because he felt it was power at the cost of their vastly disparate ideologies.
Modi's intervention is also likely to make unhappy the former Chief Minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis who has been seen as high-energy in attempts to bring down Thackeray with multiple visits to the Governor. Any reset of the relationship will hurt him politically. His image also takes a hit with Modi's move being seen as a distant rebuke.
Before the way was cleared for Thackeray, the Sena was anxious. Its leader Sanjay Raut told me that "The opposition (BJP) is in frustration right now. In a situation like this, our stand is absolutely right. And supported by the Constitution."
Thackeray has never contested an election. His hard scrabble to make it to the House on his first attempt seems to have worked.
Despite being a newbie administrator, Thackeray has been widely perceived as delivering a hands on, calm and mature leadership as his state combats the maximum number of Coronavirus cases in the country.
On one front at least, he can exhale.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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