On the eve of a floor test in the Assembly, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis resigned from the top post resulting in a big blow to the BJP. His exit paved the way for Uddhav Thackeray to take oath as the next CM with support from the NCP and the Congress.
Maharashtra’s political theatre witnessed a dramatic comeback and an equally ignominious exit by BJP’s star Devendra Fadnavis as Chief Minister after being sworn in for the second time in his career and serving in office for just 80-hours in his second stint. His embarrassing resignation from the CM's post opened the door for Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray to become the next CM, the first from the influential Thackeray family to do so, with support from the NCP and the Congress.
Over the past week, Fadnavis' fortune rose and fell with support of NCP rebel Ajit Pawar who first took oath as his deputy CM but later resigned and returned to the fold of his uncle and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, leaving the BJP in the lurch. Fadnavis stepped down as CM on the eve of the Supreme Court-directed floor test in the Assembly with numbers heavily stacked against the BJP in the 288-member House. Fadnavis said he was exiting as the CM as his party BJP – with 105 MLAs - had taken a principled stand not to indulge in horse trading to reach the magic figure of 145.
Accusing Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress of ganging up and giving up their ideologies to stop the BJP from forming the government, Fadnavis expressed fear that the proposed three-party government of the new alliance partners may not last long as it would be like three wheels of a vehicle that may never move together in the same direction. He also slammed the Sena for its allegedly unprincipled attempt to bargain the CM's post with the BJP, saying that there was no pre-poll talk on power sharing with the Sena but the Thackeray-led party started pressing for it after it unexpectedly returned with strong numbers in the election.
In the October 21 Maharashtra polls, the BJP and its ally Sena secured a comfortable majority by winning 105 and 56 seats respectively in the 288-member Assembly. The Congress and the NCP won 44 and 54 seats respectively. But the state was put under President’s rule after the end of a pre-poll alliance between Sena and the BJP over the issue of power sharing. The President's rule was revoked after Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar of the NCP and his supporters came together for government formation but the experiment did not last more than four days.
Looking to whip up sympathy for himself while resigning as CM, Fadnavis played the victim card and revived memories of the Karnataka Assembly episode in which BJP's three-day-old CM, B S Yeddyurappa, too had resigned before a floor test due to inadequate numbers last year. Analysts say if Maharashtra follows the Karnataka political script in the coming months then it is not going to be long before the BJP would return to power as it did in the southern state within 14 months of BSY's resignation in the House.
In the short-term, the Maharashtra BJP may appear to have ended with egg on its face due to its hasty decision to ask Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar to take oath in an early morning swearing-in ceremony last week and resigning after 80 hours, but it succeeded in gaining voter sympathy by projecting itself as the target of the combined hatred of rival parties like Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress.
If the Sena-NCP-Congress government dies a premature death before 2024 – when the five-year term of the newly-elected Assembly ends – the BJP would achieve its purpose of proving to voters that a stable government without the BJP is not possible in the state. This would also boost the stability slogan of the party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah at the national level.
By not indulging in alleged horse trading and opting to resign instead of trying to win over MLAs from other parties, the BJP has also tried to project itself as a clean and principled party that is willing to play the role of a responsible Opposition rather than looking to enjoy the fruits of power at any cost. Its decision not to influence MLAs of other parties may also help it project a clean image in the upcoming Jharkhand Assembly elections.
At the national level, the developments in Maharashtra reflect the coming of age of the Shiv Sena as a political force capable of carrying the flag of its Hindutva agenda single-handedly – without the support of the BJP or the saffron parivar. For all times to come, the Shiv Sena would now graduate to the status of a prominent national player and a permanent feature in the multi-party Assembly contests in the future in Maharashtra.
As Thackeray leads the new government of Sena-NCP-Congress alliance or Maha Vikas Aghadi, the coming together of ideologically different parties to fight the BJP also marks the birth of a pan-Indian political idea that thrives on the principle of dislike for the saffron party and involves the Congress as the binding gel for all anti-BJP outfits. To come together with the right wing Sena, the Congress crossed the psychological barrier of siding with a shrill Hindutva player. Some Maharashtra Congress leaders convinced party chief Sonia Gandhi that going along with Sena may not exactly mean a loss of Muslim support for the party. They cited the victory of Sena's Abdul Sattar from Sillod constituency in last month's polls to support their theory that embracing Sena need not dilute the Congress' appeal to Muslim voters.
The political upheaval and the rise of the Thackeray government in Maharashtra may have a major bearing on PM Modi's bullet train project. If land acquisition for the project gets messier under the Sena-NCP-Congress, the BJP government at the Centre would have a ready excuse of a non-cooperative state government for any possible delays in the prestigious project that is virtually a test case for the saffron party's election slogan “Modi hai to mumkin hai (Nothing is impossible under Modi)”
Interestingly, the two key decisions taken by Fadnavis in his short second innings as CM pertained to closing anti-corruption cases in the irrigation department case, some of which included the name of NCP's Ajit Pawar as key conspirator, and issuing a farm relief package for rain-battered districts. By extending a concession to Ajit Pawar, by removing the anti-corruption noose around his neck, the saffron party seems to have invested in him for the future. A possible patch-up between the BJP and Ajit Pawar led NCP MLAs cannot be ruled out in future. Also by releasing funds for the farm package, the BJP has tried to project itself as a pro-peasant outfit.
It was a mere coincidence that the democratic purity and ethos were upheld and defended by the Supreme Court by ordering a televised floor test in Maharashtra on the Constitution Day. The apex court managed to protect the pillars of democratic principles on Samvidhan Divas that is celebrated in on 26 November every year to commemorate the adoption of the Constitution of India.
The significant role played by Sonia Gandhi is ensuring a Congress-backed government in Maharashtra is a setback for Rahul Gandhi and his young brigade as the entire drama shows that his mother continues to be the biggest strategist in the Congress. Besides, it also reasserts the Congress old guard's stamp of authority. The party's ambition of occupying the Speaker's post in Maharashtra is likely to give it a handle to save the alliance government from any possible attempts to destabilise it. For the Congress, which won only 44 seats, the alliance and Sonia's proactive role in the creation of the Aghadi would breathe fresh life into the party that has been slipping towards a state of decay since 2014 that marked the emergence of Modi and Amit Shah at the national political landscape.
The end of the drama in Maharashtra is sure to start the beginning of a new era of coalition politics in the state with Sharad Pawer gaining in stature within the NCP and his supporters aspiring to emerge as bigger influential players in a state dominated by other players including the BJP, Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP. For BJP and its chief Amit Shah, it is time for introspecting on the reasons why the party failed to get a clear majority.