It proved to be a deadly duo - Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray today ensured that it was a short-stay government for the BJP in Maharashtra, establishing themselves at least for now as the Super Chanakyas of the protracted political crisis in the state, outwitting Amit Shah, the acknowledged expert in installing BJP governments in states where the mandate is fractured.
Uddhav Thackeray, 57 years old, often considered a political lightweight, is set to take over as Chief Minister, replacing Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP who logged about 80 hours in the office before his alliance with Sharad Pawar's nephew, Ajit, crashed this afternoon.
Considering the week he's had, it was natural for Thackeray to be tearful while hugging his son Aaditya in front of a portrait of his father Bal Thackeray, Sena founder, after Fadnavis said at a press conference at 3:30 pm that he was exiting office.
The events unfolded quickly: the Supreme Court ruled with the Congress-Pawar-Sena combine for a floor test for Fadnavis to be held tomorrow; Sharad then met Ajit and persuaded him to ditch Team Fadnavis, making it clear that the bulk of their party's legislators remain loyal to him and not to Ajit. The message in any case had been delivered last evening when these legislators showed up with Pawar Senior at a five-star hotel where they joined lawmakers of the Congress and the Sena. Ajit, who had announced the party's support to Fadnavis and accepted the post of Deputy Minister, resigned. Meanwhile, the PM and Amit Shah met in Delhi and then conveyed to Fadnavis that he would have to step down rather than facing a guaranteed defeat in tomorrow's vote in the legislature.
The political comeback of the year 2019 is undoubtedly that of Sharad Pawar, 79, who will firmly hold the remote control of India's richest state, warring family baggage notwithstanding.
A roll call of the losers in my opinion includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who put his political capital on the line and tweeted support of the Fadnavis and Pawar government minutes after it was sworn in (he also used special powers to enable the end of President's Rule in Maharashtra without a cabinet meeting); Amit Shah, union Home Minister and BJP President who was outmaneuvered by Pawar; Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, who seemed to act as a rubber stamp of the centre (one could argue the same for President Ram Nath Kovind).
The BJP brazenly had Devendra Fadnavis sworn in at 7:50 am along with Ajit Pawar on Saturday morning. It appeared the game was up for the non-BJP combine. But Pawar steadily worked with Thackeray to maintain their unlikely alliance and to ensure nephew Ajit returned to do his bidding.
The Maharashtra outcome has for now bumped hard and bumped fast the political reputation of Modi and Shah, whose many successes have cloaked them in an image of invincibility. This is regularly buffed up by an obliging media.The opposition has gained India's richest state and will go in to the elections of Jharkhand and Delhi with an enhanced appetite and better credentials (everyone loves a winner). But our opposition is incapable of not losing the plot. The Congress party will now be part of a ruling alliance after barely bothering to fight the Maharashtra elections. It has turned into an accidental winner of a state where it still commands a vote share.
Expect the differences in the disparate alliance to pop up immediately. The three parties have vastly different ideologies; they stand united only by the will to keep out the BJP. It took the Sena, NCP and Congress so long to decide their common ground that the BJP nearly walked away with the prize. And let's not forget Karnataka, where the BJP managed to push out the Congress-HD Kumaraswamy government to make BS Yediyurappa the Chief Minister just four months ago.
Two things are important. The maximalist approach of Modi and Shah which has reduced all politics to an electoral zero sum game is resulting in actively alienating allies. The Sena broke its 30-year-old alliance with the BJP and chose ideologically incompatible and uncertain partners instead of Modi and Shah. The BJP is left with only two real allies - the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Akali Dal in Punjab. And two, the anti-BJP combine has to find a way to function coherently even as investigative agencies are likely to be used to make the alliance wobble even more. Key to this will be the trust factor - so far, Thackeray has been wisely accepting much advice from Pawar.
Sharad Pawar was served an Enforcement Directorate notice before the Maharashtra elections and that got the wiliest politician in India to decide on the battle of his life. A picture of Pawar addressing a rally in pouring rain in Satara went viral and made for an emotional connect with voters.
Pawar challenged Shah after the results by declaring "Amit Shah knows how to make governments without numbers. I want to see what he can do in Maharashtra." Pawar may take this round but not without a cost - the family battle for succession between nephew Ajit and his daughter Supriya Sule is now fully exposed.
Alliances like the one that will govern Maharashtra see shrinkage quickly. And Amit Shah never rests - nor does he take defeat lightly. Again, remember Karnataka. Maharashtra isn't checked off anyone's list just yet.
(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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