By P.K.Balachandran/South Asian Monitor
Irrespective of the outcome, the on-going post-election imbroglio over government formation in the Western Indian State of Maharashtra offers four takeaways.
On Tuesday, Governor’s Rule was imposed for a maximum of six months obviously to give time to the beleaguered Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to sew up a majority in the House. But this does not change the shape of politics in the State which will be delineated in the subsequent paragraphs.
The first takeaway is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by the charismatic mascot Narendra Modi and the “Chanakyan” Amit Shah, is not an invincible political force, even if it emerges as the single largest party in an avowedly “Hindutva” State like Maharashtra.
The second takeaway is that the Hindutva camp is not a monolith as its supporters (called “Bhakts” or devotees) claim. Power-struggles within the “ Sangh Parivar” (the family of Hindutva parties or organizations) could be as bitter and divisive as they are in other ideological and secular groups.
The third takeaway is that Indian political culture is marked, not by water-tight ideological compartments, but by fluid and inter-changeable identities. Parties strive to identify themselves as Leftist or liberal, as secular or religious, as Hindutva and non-Hindutva. But in reality, they are ideologically quite indeterminate and have a proclivity to swim with the current of the day.
On many critical issues, like Ram Janmabhoomi and Kashmir or Pakistan for example, the line dividing the secular Congress and the Hindutvic BJP, is thin. In fact, from the 1930s itself, Congress has been playing Hindutva politics in a devious and covert manner which was one of the factors which led to the partition of India in 1947. After independence Nerhu, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had opted for “Soft Hindutva” in varying degrees to suit majority opinion. However, eventually, “Soft Hindutva” did not pay because the masses opted for the real thing, namely, BJP’s hard Hindutva.
The fourth takeaway is that political parties in India, across the ideological divide, give acquisition and retention of power top priority and not ideological commitments or niceties. To achieve this goal, they will co-habit with any party, irrespective of ideological differences. The cloak under which such crass political decisions are taken is the dubious Gandhian motto: “there are no untouchables”.
Case of Maharashtra
In Maharashtra, it all began as genuine ideological warfare. In the October 21 State Assembly elections, the Hindutva family, comprising the BJP and the Shiv Sena, fought together as allies, while the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were the “secular” rivals.
Since the Shiv Sena considers Maharashtra as its natural habitat and as a representative of Marathi Hindus, it strongly felt prior to the polling, that it should share cabinet berths on a 50:50 basis and that the Chief Minister’s post should go by rotation between the two parties. The BJP formally agreed to this, because at that time, it was not confident that it will be able to live down the anti-incumbency factor and bag a majority of seats. Distress in the agricultural sector was acute, and farmers were committing suicide in that State.
However, given the overwhelming appeal of Hindutva, the BJP did emerge as the single largest party with 105 seats and the Shiv Sena got 56, in the Assembly of 288 seats. The NCP got 54 and the Congress 44.
Given these numbers, the BJP and the Shiv Sena could have formed the government easily as together they had 161 MLAs, while the half way mark plus one required to form a government was only 145.
But the Maharashtra State and the Central BJP were suddenly seized by greed. They refused to honor the pre-election commitments to the Shiv Sena. They even denied that any such pact was entered into. The Shiv Sena stuck to its guns and declared that it would walk out of the alliance if trust was breached.
Without the Shiv Sena, the BJP could not form the government, though the State Governor had invited it do so. The BJP’s hands were tied as it could not seek support from its arch all-India rival, the Congress. It approached the NCP, which had emerged as the main opposition political force in the State. The NCP, unlike the Congress, is not implacably opposed to the BJP. It’s leader Sharad Pawar’s ideology has been somewhat nebulous though he remains a chip of the old Congress block essentially.
However, Sharad Pawar sensed that his standing as a national secular alternative would be tarnished if he joined hands with the BJP. He declared that the BJP and the Shiv Sena should form a government as the majority of the people had voted for that combination.
In the meanwhile, the Shiv Sena set aside its ideological predilections and sought the support of the NCP and Congress.
After the BJP expressed its inability to form a government, the Governor invited the Shiv Sena to form one and gave it a short deadline. But the Shiv Sena could not meet the deadline and asked for two more days. The Governor refused and called upon NCP to form a government on November 12, putting all the parties in a quandary.
On the one hand, too much of politicking could lead to the imposition of Governor’s Rule and expensive fresh elections, and on the other, there was the ticklish question of forming a stable government with parties pursuing political and ideological agendas.
Sharad Pawar, who initially held the view that the electoral mandate was for the setting up of a BJP-Shiv Sena administration, and that the NCP and the Congress should sit in the opposition, changed track. He sensed that power was within his grasp and is currently in a huddle with Congress President Sonia Gandhi to find ways and means of forming a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government.
To test the Shiv Sena’s sincerity about forming an alliance with the NCP and the Congress, Pawar demanded that it break with the BJP fully, even at the Central level in New Delhi where it was a partner in the Modi government.A desperate Shiv Sena readily obliged and got its member in the Modi government to resign.
Ball in Congress Court
The ball is now in the court of the Congress, a party which the thoughtless pundits of the media and talk shows on TV channels had dismissed as “moribund”. But it’s enigmatic chief, Sonia Gandhi, has not revealed her cards yet. She is not in a hurry as the Congress has time on its side. The Congress does not have the numbers to form a government or play a pivotal role in government formation, unlike the NCP or the Shiv Sena. It can survey the scene with equanimity unlike the others in the field.
But the Congress’ decision has to come soon as any failure to help form a government will force the Governor to dissolve the House and order fresh elections. Though fresh elections might help the Congress exploit the cleavages in the Hindutva camp and win more seats than it did in October, no MLA wants an election so soon after the earlier one.
There is, therefore, pressure on Sonia Gandhi from sections of the Maharashtra Congress to form an alliance with the Shiv Sena and NCP and form a government. Alternatively, the Congress could give issue-based outside support to a Shiv Sena-NCP government.
Be that as it may, irrespective of the outcome of the frenetic political activity in Mumbai and New Delhi, what is clear is that the BJP is not invincible even its “strongholds”; there are no supermen in Indian politics with a reasonably long shelf life; the Hindutva edifice is brittle; ideologies could be compromised for the formation of alliances; and that, at the end of the day, politics is mainly about power, and not about Hindutva or secularism.
(The features images at the top are those of Sonia Gandhi, Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar)