Features | Politics | South Asia

Understanding Maharashtra’s Political Game of Thrones

Betrayal, chaos, and intrigue colored Maharashtra’s latest bout of state political drama.

Siddharthya Roy
Understanding Maharashtra’s Political Game of Thrones
Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Gripping as the post-election drama that unfolded in India’s second largest and richest state Maharashtra might have been, the story should deeply worry the Indian polity. Given the unabashed buying and selling of lawmakers, and the brazen attempt to subvert political norms and ethics by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the world’s largest democracy is barely holding on to its last shreds of credibility.

On account of Maharashtra’s size and wealth, getting to office in the state assembly translates to big benefits at the national level both in terms of the number of seats that might be gained and in monetary benefits needed to win future elections.

The elections for this crucial state’s assembly took place on October 21, 2019. After the declaration of results on October 24, the BJP became the single largest party, securing 105 out of 288 seats.

But the numbers weren’t enough. As per India’s constitution a party or a coalition needs a two-third majority (192 seats, in this case) to stake the claim to form a government. And the BJP’s tally was shy of the mark by 87 seats.

This was, in many ways, unexpected. In the run up to the polls, analysts were of the opinion that the Modi wave that rose in 2014 hadn’t ebbed in Maharashtra. The BJP getting back to power was seen as a foregone conclusion.

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But that math went askew, owing to a resurgent Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress, which won 54 and 44 seats respectively. Another 29 seats were divided among smaller parties and independents.

The ball now was in the court of the BJP’s oldest ally in the state as well as at the central level: the Shiv Sena, a regionalist right-wing force, which won 56 seats. Ajit Pawar, NCP leader and nephew of party founder Sharad Pawar, had then told reporters that his party and the Congress would remain in the opposition.

Going by the results, a BJP-Shiv Sena government with Devendra Fadnavis at the helm seemed to be on the cards. But in recent history, the Shiv Sena, once the dominant partner in the alliance, was pushed into the defensive by the BJP. Riding the wave of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, the BJP was winning many more seats in the state than its traditionally bigger partner. The Shiv Sena saw its chance in this situation, with a weakened BJP at its mercy again, and seemed to have decided to teach its closest friend a lesson or two about keeping true to promises made before assembly polls.

The Shiv Sena Story

The Shiv Sena (Shivaji’s army) was founded by Bal Keshav Thackeray, a newspaper cartoonist born to radical social thinker Keshav Sitaram Thackeray. It took its roots in the working class angst of 1960s Mumbai, when a rich north-Indian-Gujarati capitalist class owned the hundreds of mills that operated in the city and the communists dominated the trade unions of the workers who ran these mills. The Shiv Sena was also fanned by the Indian National Congress as a tool against the communists.

With the weakening of the trade union movement and the fall of Mumbai’s mills, the working class soon took refuge in the rabid identity politics that the Sena had to offer. Bal Thackeray was blessed with an oratory to make the masses swoon and swoon they did. They gathered around the cause of the “Marathi Manoos” (Marathi speakers) and took to violent protests and riots against people from other parts of India, especially the south, home of the educated elite who dominated the administrative ranks of the Indian bureaucracy.

By the ‘80s, the Sena had found a friend in the newly formed Bharatiya Janata Party, a national right-wing Hindutva party formed from the ashes of the earlier Jan Sangh. The BJP functioned on the ideology instilled by the radical right-wing Hindutva outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Sena, too, shifted its focus from regional identity toward an extreme nationalist Hindutva. Since then, the Sena has been notorious for being involved in multiple incidents of communal hatred, including the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the Mumbai riots of 1993, and so on.

Although gathering muscle all over the country, the BJP had meager strength in the state of Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena under Bal Thackeray stayed the dominant partner of the alliance over the years and that has caused frustrations in the BJP ranks. With Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012, the BJP saw an opportunity as the reigns of the Sena were handed over to Bal Thackeray’s son, the soft-spoken, non-combative Uddhav, .

Gaining the ultimate upper hand in the 2014 general and assembly elections, winning more seats than the Sena and toppling the Congress-NCP government in the center as well as the state, the BJP came  out as a political giant. Sharad Pawar’s NCP too played its cards to weaken the Sena in the coalition, by extending outside support to the state BJP government.

The Coalition Chaos

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The Shiv Sena claimed that in multiple pre-poll meetings for the alliance, the BJP, both state and central leaders, had promised to share the post of the chief minister of Maharashtra for two and a half years each. But the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, the incumbent chief minister, had no intention to leave his post and was staking his claim to return as the CM once again. The Shiv Sena had put its foot down and the BJP leadership did not help the situation by repeatedly stating that the Sena was lying about any such promise to share the chief ministerial term.

“I have confirmed with [BJP president] Amit Shah and he told me that the BJP has not given any assurance for the Chief Minister’s post for two-and-a-half years [each for the BJP and Sena],” Devendra Fadnavis told the press.

The adamant Shiv Sena was being buoyed even more by the implied indirect support of the Congress-NCP bloc, who saw an opportunity to form a government once more in their traditional stronghold, although with lesser numbers. There were a few reluctant voices opposing shaking hands with their long-term foe Shiv Sena, which stands on the right-wing side of ideology. But they found no support, as the polity of the state had been pushed into humiliation by the recent five-year term of the BJP in power.

On November 7, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari invited the BJP to form a government. The party expressed its inability to do so after its fall out with the Shiv Sena. Subsequently, Devendra Fadnavis resigned. So Koshyari approached the Shiv Sena and NCP, granting the former 24 hours to demonstrate its majority to form the government. NCP was given even less time. The Sena claimed it did have majority support, however, and demanded an extra three days to procure letters of support.

Koshyari declined the request and the Shiv Sena filed a petition at the Supreme Court asserting that the governor’s decision was “ex-facie arbitrary, unconstitutional and violative of Article 14.” The Apex court, however, refused a hearing to the Sena. And, on November 12, even while the NCP, Congress, and Shiv Sena were negotiating a partnership, President’s Rule was declared in the state by the governor. Though there were talks on the possibility of the President’s rule being imposed beforehand, its implementation seemed rushed.

Beginnings of an Unlikely Coalition

In the following days, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut met with NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. Meetings were called by the Shiv Sena and Congress to discuss their party’s stand on an alliance with the Sena. Sharad Pawar met with Sonia Gandhi on November 4. This was followed by a statement from NCP, which said that they were willing to team up with Shiv Sena to form the government.

The NCP looked the most eager to fan the flames of the Sena and form the unlikely alliance. The Congress, however, being a national party, had other states in the country to worry about, where the Maharashtra elections would surely reverberate.

On being asked whether an alliance between the Congress and Shiv Sena was possible, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said: “These are ifs and buts… in case we do receive such a proposal from the Shiv Sena… To the best of my knowledge, no such proposal has come to us.”  The Congress took painfully slow and careful steps, testing waters one toe at a time.

That did not stop the NCP, Congress, and Shiv Sena from preparing a draft of a Common Minimum Program (CMP), which sought to take inputs from the commonalities in their election manifestos. A disagreement between the Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena surfaced over the word “secularism” as they moved towards formalizing their alliance, which they named “Mahavikas Aghadi.”

Shiv Sena also announced that it would not attend the national NDA meet in Delhi. Sharad Pawar met with Narendra Modi in Parliament and their talks revolved around the political situation in Maharashtra. On November 22, the three-party alliance declared that Uddhav Thackeray would become the chief minister of Maharashtra. However, things were about to take a wild turn.

Twist in the Tale  

On November 23, as Maharashtra woke up, it found out that Devendra Fadnavis had been sworn in as the chief minister once more as no other than the second-in-command of the NCP had extended his support to the BJP, himself being sworn in as the deputy chief minister in the wee hours that day. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind revoked President’s Rule in Maharashtra in a notification signed at 5.47 a.m. Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar were sworn in as chief minister and deputy chief minister respectively in complete secrecy with orders passed in the middle of the night.

After the ceremony, Fadnavis told ANI: “The State is suffering from farmer problems. The instability in the State is not good for the development of the State. It was important to form the government. Ajit dada came with us and we approached the Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and claimed to form the government. The President’s rule was removed and we decided to take oath today itself.”

The political drama continued for two more days as there were talks of a split in the NCP. Ajit Pawar, nephew of the old strongman of Maharashtra politics and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, had claimed that he had the support of almost all NCP MLAs and he had the authority to issue a whip as he was elected the assembly leader by the party prior to elections. No NCP leaders were seen at the oath-taking ceremony. Ajit Pawar claimed he was “tired” of discussions between the three parties and instead decided to join the BJP administration. He promised to bring with him the support of 54 MLAs required by the BJP to form a government

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However, his uncle distanced himself and his party from Ajit’s surprising move. Sharad Pawar tweeted: “Ajit Pawar’s decision to support the BJP to form the Maharashtra Government is his personal decision and not that of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). We place on record that we do not support or endorse this decision of his.”

The BJP was more than happy to accommodate the very person that it had been targeting during the political campaign, with allegations of multiple millions worth of corruption scandals. But Sharad Pawar, who still seemed to have control of his party, stood his ground and kept his promise to the other alliance. Subsequently, Ajit was expelled as the NCP legislative party leader.

Supreme Court Intervenes

Shiv Sena, the NCP, and Congress then decided to move to the Supreme Court on November 23, challenging the governor’s decision. Their suit termed the swearing-in of Fadnavis as “arbitrary” and “malafide.” The court allotted the matter for hearing the very next day. On November 24, the Supreme Court asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to produce the letters of Maharashtra governor recommending revocation of President’s rule.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of these demands and asked the state assembly to appoint a temporary speaker and to conduct a floor test within 24 hours. This sent panic across the BJP-Ajit Pawar alliance, which seemed to have faked its strength. The bluff was finally exposed by Ajit himself, who dealt the final blow to the saffron party after announcing his resignation soon after the swearing-in ceremony. Fadnavis followed soon and the way was cleared for the brand new three-party alliance of Sena-NCP-Congress, christened the Maha Vikas Aghadi (Maharashtra Development Front), to form the government and display its strength on the floor of the house.

Sharad Pawar, who had a telephone conversation with Ajit before he resigned, had asked him to reconsider his decision of supporting the BJP. Thus, he was credited for his nephew’s change of heart. Many NCP supporters hailed the NCP supremo as the perennial “man of the match” in Maharashtrian politics.

Fadnavis, however, was fuming. “Ajit Pawar met me and said he could not continue with the alliance for some reasons and he was resigning. Since he has resigned, we too do not have a majority,” Fadnavis told the press. Those accusing the BJP of indulging in horse-trading have themselves purchased an “entire stable,” he said, lashing out at the Shiv Sena.

Meanwhile, Uddhav Thackeray reached Raj Bhavan and staked a claim to form government in Maharashtra.

He was accompanied by other leaders from the NCP, Shiv Sena, and Congress. Thackeray said: “We are submitting a joint statement of staking a claim for government formation before the governor. We will also produce proof of the support of all the MLAs of the three parties to the governor as a part of the mandatory procedure.”

Thackeray took the oath as the 18th chief minister of Maharashtra on November 27 in Mumbai’s Dadar. He is the third Shiv Sena leader after Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane to hold the position. The aforementioned chain of events has been a path-breaking show of regional resurgence against the dominance of the center.

Chanakya Defeated

The BJP has been notorious since it came to power in 2014 at the center for strong-arming its way into state governments, by using a “by hook or by crook” policy to form governments, even in states where it has as few as two members in one case. This nonchalant behavior was dreaded especially by regional parties, some even former allies of the BJP.

This brazen electoral machination had reached its zenith since Amit Shah became the party president of the BJP. The party allegedly bought out candidates, threatened leaders with prosecution for financial misdeeds through the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax department, and thus made them break ranks and join the BJP to help it form the government in states where it had not won sufficient numbers.

These tactics were unquestioningly hailed by the submissive Indian media as the “Chanakya neeti” of Amit Shah, referring to Vishnugupta, a royal advisor who lived in the 3rd century BCE and penned a treatise on politics and political strategie, titled Arthashastra. Vishnugupta was popularly known as “Chanakya;” the same name was used for Amit Shah by the Indian media to portray his maneuvers as a stroke of genius and not of unethical cunning.

Maharashtra, however, seems to have shown the regional powers that they can find alternative strategies to the center’s bullying and persevere before the might of the inexhaustible resources and power of the BJP’s electoral machine. The story of the Maharashtra election also flags the BJP for its blatantly opportunistic gameplay, where it will go to any length to just gain power.

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Siddharthya Roy is a New Delhi-based correspondent on South Asian affairs.