Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray
Protracted negotiations involving the Shiv Sena, the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress for the new coalition arrangement in Maharashtra have dealt less with the issues of governance and more about managing personalities.
The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) that supposedly lists out key priorities for the new government opened with a ‘preamble’ emphasising on ‘secularism’ rather than propounding a grand political vision for Maharashtra.
Ironically, the Congress spent too much time hammering out the CMP until the early morning ‘shock and awe’ type of swearing-in of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister on November 23. This robbed the Opposition of its slumber and forced it to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court, whose intervention for an early floor test saved the alliance.
Soon, strategy managers were busy in herding their numbers and wooing the rebel, NCP’s Ajith Pawar who was sworn-in as deputy chief minister under Fadnavis, back to the fold. The political drama ended on November 26, a day before the apex court-ordered floor test was to be conducted. This has left the ‘numbers versus longevity’ game to be settled for another day.
For grabbing an opportunity of heading the government after 20 years, the Shiv Sena dumped a 30-year-old alliance with the BJP and shed initial disagreements on using the word ‘secular’ in CMP, where now the word appears twice in the first paragraph itself. Reports were that the Sena was against the word appearing in the coalition’s or Maha Vikas Aghadi’s CMP.
A day after he won the confidence vote, Shiv Sena chief and Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray could not help saying that the Hindutva ideology is indispensable to the Shiv Sena and the party will not leave it. “I am still with the ideology of 'Hindutva' and won't ever leave it," he said in the state assembly.
Nevertheless, the Congress leaders thought it was their hour of triumph that the Shiv Sena had for the first time adopted secularism as an instrument of seizing political power from the BJP. A number of hardened optimists among the ‘liberal-secular’ circles believe that the CMP and the lure of power is enough to let Thackeray ‘undo and outgrow’ the legacy of his father Bal Thackeray, who founded the Sena 53 years ago on the basis of a chauvinistic politics.
They rely on his averments that he would not allow anything “that makes the common man feel terrorised.” Therefore, the CMP would serve as a tool that will “bridge the ideological and temperamental gulf between the Congress and the Sena by focusing on some pressing issues faced by the commoners, particularly farmers.”
Other key focus areas in the CMP were hardly contentions issues as most parties agreed on tackling them on a priority basis: farm distress, unemployment, health, industry, social justice, women, education and urban development. Similarly, a law to ensure 80 per cent reservation in jobs for local/domicile youth (which is seen as the Sena’s plank) should not bother the ruling partners in terms of their ideologies.
However, observers feel that the sore-spot for the alliance is not in the new-found Shiv Sena-Congress relationship — it is the equations within NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s family where his prodigy Ajit Pawar has returned to the NCP fold and where tension is brewing. It is said that the junior Pawar has still not reconciled to Thackeray being allowed a full five-year term as CM.
On the other side, the Congress is wary of Ajit Pawar after he joined hands with the BJP. That said, Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi and her aides realise that he is too important for the NCP and cannot be stopped from becoming deputy chief minister. Without him in the government, the NCP may well disintegrate.
Importantly, the Congress’ decision to nominate a former BJP MP Nana Patole for the assembly Speaker’s post is not exactly an expression of friendship towards the NCP. Patole, a fourth-term MLA from Sakoli, won Bhandara Lok Sabha seat as a BJP candidate, defeating former Union minister Praful Patel in 2014. Patole quit the BJP and joined the Congress following his disappointment with the top BJP leaders, citing their friendship with Patel and for refusing to act against his acts of commission and omission during the UPA regime. Patel remains a very influential leader in the NCP as he is close of the Pawars. Patel has never been averse to the NCP doing business with the BJP and won’t take kindly to the Congress’ decision on Patole.
Be as it may, the Thackeray-led Cabinet will be expanded this week. The buzz is that, besides the post of deputy CM, the NCP is all set to emerge as the biggest gainer by getting high-profile portfolios such as revenue, home and the public works department. It is also likely that the NCP may get one more ministry than the Shiv Sena. Given these complexities, the BJP’s wait may be longer than it thinks, but are there enough reasons for the Aghadi to come unstuck a year from now?Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.