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With bruised BJP, shaky Shiv Sena Maharashtra heads for winter of discontent

With bruised BJP, shaky Shiv Sena Maharashtra heads for winter of discontent
Highlights

In Maharashtra's yo-yo-style political drama, the Shiv Sena is eyeing the chief minister's chair again after a tumultuous week of politics, but you...

In Maharashtra's yo-yo-style political drama, the Shiv Sena is eyeing the chief minister's chair again after a tumultuous week of politics, but you can bet it is going to be a shaky chair.

All told, we are heading for a winter of discontent. As BJP legislators meet at the Wankhede Stadium, cricket may be in the air, but a more appropriate metaphor for the state's political drama would be India's favourite rural sport, kabaddi.

The governor of Maharashtra was woken up at 5.47 a.m. on 23 November so that BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis could be sworn in for a new term as chief minister barely two hours later, alongside Ajit Pawar as deputy chief minister. This was a marriage of convenience that looked like a shotgun wedding.

So it begs the question: if the Shiv Sena, the Indian National Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) showed a clear majority in the state's 288-member Assembly on Monday night on national television by parading 162 lawmakers to stump the BJP, why did Fadnavis not resign at dawn to match the zeal with which he took an office that lasted less than 80 hours? Why did he wait until 3 p.m. to make the announcement that he did not have the numbers?

The charitable explanation is that he waited for Ajit Pawar's breakaway/hijack attempt at taking a chunk of the NCP with him to officially fail, which it did with Ajit's resignation an hour before Fadnavis announced his exit. The less charitable one would be that the BJP had hoped that the Supreme Court would offer a longer rope on a planned floor test to prove a majority in the house.

In other words, the elbow room to trade horses was not sufficient. The state's controversial governor, after all, had offered two weeks to prove a majority. Either way, the image of Fadnavis as a sincere, straightforward statesman has come under a long shadow, evidently cast by political objects located in New Delhi, not Mumbai.

That brings us to Ajit Pawar, whose acts since Saturday have oscillated between the comic and the atrocious. The Assembly's number game is like rummy in cards, but he played blind poker — burning a bridge along the way with his uncle Sharad Pawar, a co-founder of the NCP.

The elder Pawar has shown that in his late 70s, he is still a strongman who can move mountains in the state.

By saying the NCP was with him, and then pretending there was no rift between him and Sharad Pawar, nephew Ajit seems to have deliberately created confusion to buy time and/or hope that cards would be dealt his way so that his poker play would turn up an agreeable rummy hand. Alas!

It seems on a hard look, however, that the younger Pawar was cornered (blackmailed?) into a fake act of political acquiescence. It seems that if he had not sprung up to support the BJP, the noose around him on corruption cases would tighten, thanks to the BJP being in power at the Centre. So, was it an act of insurance buying in which Ajit Pawar was happy to cut his nose to spite his face?

His political career is most certainly in jeopardy, not least because Maharashtra is a politically vibrant province in which political careers often move around hard-nosed interest group dynamics or loyalties, not personal auras. Ajit Pawar has clearly isolated himself and the only plausible explanation is that he wanted the cops off his back more than the prospect of sitting on a coveted chair.

In this mess, there are no clear winners, though Shiv Sena appears set to provide a chief minister from the Thackeray family for the first time in India's second most industrially advanced state that houses the financial capital.

Uddhav Thackeray has more troubles ahead than would seem. Given the Shiv Sena's Hindutva posturing and the Congress party's secular ideology, there is an uneasiness that is foretold. Between the two parties and the NCP, there are spoils to be shared.

Political threesomes don't come easy. Last but not the least, BJP leader and home minister Amit Shah (and for all practical purposes still the party president) is unlikely to forget the events of this week anytime soon. The rug under Uddhav Thackeray's feet can be pulled from several directions.

Mumbai may be headed for political instability, unless Sharad Pawar brokers a smart modus-vivendi in which farmers and jobs get priority over ideological rifts and the collective future of the lawmakers in the shaky Maha Aghadi alliance is cemented by a common fear of a BJP juggernaut.

However, the word juggernaut does not seem to fit the BJP anymore. The BJP is a shadow of the steamroller that Prime Minister Narendra Modi commandeered for a decade — both in electoral dynamics and the perception game. Idealist nationalism and manipulative politics now co-exist in the same bosom. Uneasily so.

My guess is that the last has not been heard in NCP's fractious politics. Sharad Pawar may have carried the day, but keeping his flock together is not going to be easy. The ambition of the average Maharashtra MLA is significant. The Congress may also need to tame the Sena's Hindutva baggage so it won't suffer image damage across the country as a party against the right-wing.

Shiv Sena itself has taken a gamble to break away from the BJP after fighting an election with it primarily to ensure both its identity and the happiness of its rank and file. Politics is not fun if you are forever going to be away from power or play second fiddle.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator)

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