How low is low enough in a market or polity? The question assumes special urgency 48 hours after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Devendra Fadnavis was sworn in as Chief Minister of Maharashtra on November 23 in a pre-dawn operation that called into question the integrity of the highest constitutional offices of India. Ajit Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party leader and elected legislator from the Pawars’ home turf Baramati, broke ranks with his family and party to support Fadnavis and took oath as Deputy Chief Minister.
Barely 48 hours later, Maharashtra’s Anti-Corruption Bureau closed a slew of corruption cases related to the Vidarbha Pathbandare Mahamandal which Pawar headed, or what’s popularly called the Rs 72,000-crore irrigation scam that Fadnavis had railed against. The ACB clarified that the closed cases did not include Pawar’s but this could be a matter of detail. With dramatic flourish, Fadnavis as Opposition leader rode a bullock cart to the office of a special inquiry team in October 2013 to offload four sacks of documents totalling nearly 14,000 pages as “evidence” of Pawar’s involvement in the scam. Pawar faces other criminal cases; they might be closed or put into cold storage now that he helped prop up BJP’s government.
A day after this shady swearing-in, facilitated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s use of emergency powers to recommend revocation of President’s Rule and the President signing off on it, BJP’s Narayan Rane said that there was a virtual “market of MLAs” (in opposition parties) waiting to be tapped for the BJP to amass the numbers for majority in the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly. Rane, not known for his sophistication, asserted that the BJP “would do everything possible” to win the numbers game.
Later that night, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli argued with me on a television debate that morality as a construct did not exist in the Constitution of India and suggested that his party was not embarrassed about its methods. His colleagues have glibly denied that the party has held out inducements to the newly-elected MLAs of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress to break ranks to join the BJP even as these parties herded the MLAs into resorts to keep them “safe” from the predatory BJP.
This utter disregard for democratic norms, unashamed use of stealth and skulduggery to install a government, open contempt for morals and ethics in political behaviour, coming on the back of its reliance on opaque funding system such as electoral bonds marks a shocking level of depravity — a new low as it were — in what was anyway a cesspool. In Mumbai, the financial and commercial capital of India, the BJP comprehensively and candidly converted politics into a market with valuations of persons with power, strategic acquisitions from rivals, profitable but questionable joint ventures, and trading of IOUs and quid pro quos both pre and post the election.
Effectively, a citizen’s vote has been valued, price-tagged and traded in. Nothing could be more disheartening for citizens whose only worth in a democracy such as ours is as a voter. When this abysmally low level of politics is practised by a party that claims incorruptibility as its USP and clean image of its leaders as a differentiator, citizens’ disappointment is complete.
Where then lies the hope? In constitutional institutions such as the Supreme Court? But the apex court took time to hear a petition filed jointly by the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the NCP for an immediate majority test in the Maharashtra Assembly. Filed on November 23 evening, hours after the surreptitious swearing-in ceremony, the court stretched the matter till November 26. The BJP got time to do its thing. A government installed with great urgency was shying away from proving its legitimacy with alacrity.
The BJP is in power in 13 of India’s states and leads coalition governments in at least six other states, but this record is chequered by the methods it used to grab or retain power. Breaking other parties, poaching into an elected group with quid pro quos, getting legislators to crossover to its side, holding out threats against influential politicians only to drop them later, all are made to look par for the course — even desirable — in its interpretation of ‘Chankayan strategy’.
Nothing could be farther from truth. This is utter defilement of democracy by those in power and claiming to be clean.
In this cesspool, no one comes out smelling of musk. If the BJP has grime on its footprint, then the Congress, which agreed to ally with its ideological rival Shiv Sena, has some too. As does the NCP and its chief Sharad Pawar, who admirably fought a tough election for his party, but has strained at the nerve to keep his flock of 54 MLAs together. Suspicion swirls around about his role in his nephew Ajit’s support to the BJP. Did he know, is this his complicated game of being kingmaker?
There’s no logic in Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray’s stand that the BJP must share the chief minister’s post equally with him given that Shiv Sena has 56 MLAs and the BJP 105. However, he turned it into a matter of prestige saying BJP President Amit Shah had promised it but went back on his word. The unnatural alliance of these parties, ideologically and culturally different from each other, is anti-BJPism at its core. In itself, it isn’t politically or morally wrong but the only glue that binds them together. Where, for example, does the principle of secularism fit into this joint venture?
Even so, this Maha Vikas Agahdi has demonstrated that it has the numbers to form the government. It paraded 162 MLAs in a five-star hotel on November 25 evening. The Fadnavis-Ajit combine is unwilling to show its numbers— yet. Democratic and constitutional norms demand that the alliance, however unnatural and indefensible, gets a shot at power.
Through this high-voltage drama, Maharashtra has unfortunately set a record for the depths political manoeuvring can sink to — something that will haunt it in the decades to come.Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist and chronicler, writes on politics, gender and the media. Views are personal.