The incidents that played out on the intervening night of November 22 and 23 in Maharashtra has taken democracy to a new low in India. On November 23, in a clear attempt at stealing the mandate, Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar took oath as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively, with the recommendation for the revocation of presidential rule and the swearing-in all happening in a matter of hours at the dead of the night.
All national dailies on Saturday carried the news of Uddhav Thackeray’s imminent ascension as Chief Minister following Sharad Pawar’s assertion the previous night and it looked as if a Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress alliance was set to form government after weeks of uncertainty. However, Maharashtra and India woke up to the news of Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar taking oath the same morning, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turning the tables on the alliance.
Earlier, there was a sense of disbelief at the way the BJP were not seen to be making an effort at forming a government in the state when the protracted talks between the Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP combine went on. For a party that made a government in Meghalaya with just two MLAs and in Goa with amazing dexterity, it was uncharacteristic to watch things unfold from the sidelines.
It was only when it finally seemed like the three unlikely allies — the Congress, the NCP and the Shiv Sena — came to a resolution and government formation appeared a certainty that the BJP swooped in and installed a government in a span of a night. If one were to go by what happened in Arunachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand in the past, and in Karnataka (in phases) more recently, this attempt at stealing the mandate is now well part of the playbook of the Amit Shah-led BJP.
As for the other side, the initial reaction of the Congress to the developments betrayed its distrust of Sharad Pawar. However, it soon emerged that the senior Pawar was also caught off-guard by his nephew in the game of thrones. In a remarkable turnaround, the NCP has been able to get back its flock together and isolate Ajit Pawar with a little help from the Shiv Sena.
Now, it increasingly looks like a strong Maharashtra sentiment will obliterate the larger differences among the allies to withstand the threat of a BJP, led by the Gujarat duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
Although the Supreme Court will only pass its orders on November 26, on the date of the floor test, the BJP’s attempt at stealing the mandate have only made the Congress-NCP-Shiv Sena combine determined to stick together and form a government.
If the parties can ensure the defeat of Fadnavis in the floor test, it could well be the first of the severe jolts the BJP is likely to receive in the next few days and weeks. Apart from Maharashtra, crucial by-elections are slated for December 5 in Karnataka whose results could determine whether BS Yediyurappa continues as Chief Minister.
The BJP had formed a government in Karnataka after inducing 17 legislators of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) combine to resign after they were flown to Mumbai and kept in a hotel for days on end. If the BJP cannot ensure the wins of at least six of their candidates, the Yediyurappa government will fall short of majority. By virtue of being sitting seats of the Congress/JD(S), it wouldn’t be easy for the BJP to wrest these seats regardless of the fact that the MLAs themselves have switched sides.
The BJP also looks to be on a sticky wicket in Jharkhand where elections are slated to be held in five phases next month. The trends in Maharashtra and Haryana have once again proved how people vote differently for Parliament and state elections, and that presents a huge challenge to the BJP.
Shah will not back down regardless of the setbacks, but it seems a strong BJP is getting isolated as smaller allies are asserting themselves. The use of saam, daam, dand, bhed by the BJP seems to be uniting disparate opposition parties into taking on the behemoth, and it may not be long before the diminishing returns of such tactics turn catastrophic for the ruling party.Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator and editor, The Kochi Post. Views are personal.