Even after a month of Assembly elections, Maharashtra is yet to get a new government due to the fractured mandate given by voters. In these circumstances, NCP chief Sharad Pawar has emerged as the king maker as he strives to bring together ideologically divergent Shiv Sena and the Congress for forming a non-BJP government in the state.
The suspense on whether Maharashtra will get its first Chief Minister from the Shiv Sena or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is getting deeper with each passing day and the Congress strategy to take its own time to consider tricky issues like the formula for power-sharing and common minimum programme (CMP) of the three parties is not doing any good to the cause of early government formation.
Amid strong signals from the Congress over its willingness to join efforts for offering a non-BJP government to Marathis, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has emerged as the most prominent contender to occupy the CM post, if the alliance takes shape. The NCP has not revealed its cards yet whether its chief and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar would himself occupy the CMO or nominate his daughter Supriya Shule, MP, or his nephew Ajit Pawar, a former deputy chief minister, for the top job in case of a rotational CM arrangement.
The biggest challenge for the proposed experiment would be to ensure the longevity of the three-party alliance if and when it comes into being.
At this juncture it is clear that government formation could take a few days before the wannabe allies – Sena, NCP, Congress – play mind games to wear out each other with the hope of getting a better deal than the other two in the final pact. One thing appears certain, the Congress will not get the CM's post even if the three parties agree to a rotational mechanism or 2.5-year tenure for Sena and NCP CM nominees.
The Maharashtra power game reached this situation after the BJP and its ally Shiv Sena took tough stands on power sharing and the Congress and the NCP showed hesitation to join hands with the Sena to form government immediately after the fractured mandate in the polls. Now, the stage is getting prepared for a possible new combination or power-sharing arrangement to take shape in the state with the Congress publically expressing its inclination to form a "stable" government in the state soon.
The state continues to remain under President's rule after the BJP and Sena had a political divorce following the declaration of election result on October 24 but the BJP's prestige seems to be at stake as its junior partner has thwarted its aim to form a back-to-back government in the state that is home to the country's financial hub Mumbai.
It is clearly visible that the Sena's ambition to have its own chief minister in the state for the first time is at the root of the turmoil in power corridors in Maharashtra where it is banking on the support of the NCP and Congress to keep its estranged ally BJP out of power. For Sena chief Uddhav, despite fighting the elections against the NCP, Pawar appears to be no untouchable. For, Sena sees Pawar to be a part of the larger Maratha community and is not averse to joining hands with him in the name of Maratha pride.
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.
Analysts say the Congress views Sena with suspicion due to its diametrically opposite ideology and also due to the Sena's historical affinity for the BJP. It is believed that Sonia Gandhi is a bit reluctant to join hands with Sena but her party leaders from Maharashtra see Sena as a potent weapon to prevent the BJP from forming government. However, there also is a buzz in Congress circles that Sonia is keen to demolish the perception built by the BJP about her outfit being a 'Muslim party'. In this direction, joining hands with the Sena would be the first step towards embracing Hindutva in a bigger way as compared to the softer version of Hindutva experimented by the party in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan elections.
To come together with the right wing Sena, the Grand Old Party may have to cross the psychological barrier of siding with a shrill Hindutva player. Observers say Sonia Gandhi can blunt criticism on this by dubbing it as an attempt to build a broader anti-BJP platform. Some Maharashtra Congress leaders are allegedly trying to convince Sonia that going along with Sena may not exactly mean a loss of Muslim support for the party. They cite the victory of Sena's Abdul Sattar from Sillod constituency in last months's polls to support their theory that embracing Sena need not dilute the Congress' appeal to Muslim voters.
While there are opponents within Maharashtra Congress to the party propping up a chief minister from the party headed by Pawar – a leader who ditched the Congress 20 years ago to form the NCP – the other view is to occupy at least the Speaker's post in the state. The anti-Pawar group wants NCP chief's main detractor Prithviraj Chavan to occupy the Speaker's chair and this view within the Congress is allegedly causing delay in hammering out a deal.
Meanwhile, the Sena's decision to quit the NDA government at the Centre has come as a strong signal from the Uddhav Thackeray-led outfit about its eagerness to dump its political baggage from the past and forge relations with new partners.
While the NCP was in talks with the Congress for a possible coalition with Sena there were ominous signs in Pawar's double speak on the way forward. Observers say the BJP, which also heads the Central government, may not want the other three parties to walk away with the Maharashtra crown so easily. There is also a buzz about Pawar facing pressure from the BJP or the Central government for not going ahead with the formation of the coalition government. The ED is said to have opened cases against senior NCP leaders like Ajit Pawar and Praful Patel. Even the Sena seems to be facing the heat with the income tax department raiding BMC contractors who work for the Sena controlled civic agency.
Amid Pawar's deceptive assertions on the future of government formation in Maharashtra, Union minister Ramdas Athawale added a new dimension to the on-going tussle between the saffron allies by claiming that he had suggested to Sena leader Sanjay Raut a compromise formula under which BJP would have a CM for 3 years and Sena would have a CM for 2 years. Athawale claimed Raut gave a positive signal by saying that if the BJP agreed to this arrangement then Sena could think about it.
An independent MP from Maharashtra's Amravati, Navnit Kaur Rana, has suggested that the BJP and the NCP should come together to form a government. The suggestion was taken very seriously by observers after Prime Minister Narendra Modi added to the unfolding suspense by praising the NCP in the Rajya Sabha for strictly "adhering to parliamentary norms". In his address at the start of the 250th session of the Upper House, the Prime Minister said members of the NCP never rush to the well of the House to raise their issues and yet highlight their points effectively.
Meanwhile, the bitterness between BJP and Sena was once again bared when former CM Devendra Fadnavis was heckled when he went to pay tribute to Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray on his death anniversary. At the event, Fadnavis, the BJP's CM face, was greeted with slogans by Sena workers who shouted “Sarkar kunauchi? Shiv Sena chi” (Whose government? Shiv Sena's).
Pawar, the king maker and the Maratha strongman, is the most crucial bridge between the Shiv Sena and the Congress, has reportedly held several meetings with Sena and Congress leaders. The Maratha chieftain is definitely in the thick of formation of the next government. In the on-going power play, the trump card shall remain in his hand till the end as he carries the master key, with his 54 MLAs, that can bring Sena and Congress or the BJP to mantralaya – the seat of power of government in Maharashtra that sends the second highest number of MPs to Parliament.