Maharashtra political crisis : A brief history of the present
The roots of the current political crisis in Maharashtra are located in how the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ coalition came to be and raises the question that can a rag-tag coalition with no ideological coherence put up an opposition to the electoral might of the Bharatiya Janata Party
The 2019 Maharashtra Assembly elections had delivered a verdict as clear as day. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had won the polls. Of the 288 seats in the Maharashtra Assembly, 105 went to the BJP, 56 to Shiv Sena, 54 to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and 44 to the Congress. Thus, between the BJP and Shiv Sena, the NDA had 162 seats, a clear majority.
A government was expected to be formed and Devendra Fadnavis, the man who had led the state from 2014 to 2019, was expected to continue. A status quo was ensured. This is when, not unlike a bolt from the blue, Uddhav Thackeray, the son of Balasaheb Thackeray, made a demand that would unwind the potential government – he wanted the chief minister’s post to be shared.
This, for the BJP, was nearly non-negotiable. The party was the single-largest in the state and had led Maharashtra for five years. All that had changed was that the Fadnavis-led party witnessed a minor drop in seats (from 122 in 2014 to 106 in 2019). But the Shiv Sena wasn’t willing to let go its partial claim on the chief minister’s chair.
Uddhav Thackeray, the man presumed to have a softer image than his father Bal Thackeray or his cousin Raj Thackeray, was persistent. He said he would ensure that he fulfil one of his father’s wishes – there be another Shiv Sena chief minister in Maharashtra.
Tensions rose after Uddhav Thackeray, on being asked about government formation in Maharashtra, said “all options were open” to him. A furious Fadnavis said, “The day poll results came, Uddhav ji said all options were open for government formation. That was shocking for us as people had given mandate for our alliance.”
For days, Maharashtra was stuck in a quandary. The state that houses the finance capital of India, thousands of acres of cotton-growing land and hundreds of villages at consistent risk of drought, was unable to figure out a government, its political establishment knee-deep in paltry questions of power. The drama was far from over.
When Maharashtra Governor Bharat Singh Koshiyari called Fadnavis’ BJP to form the government, considering it was the single-largest party, BJP said it did not have the numbers. It was at that time when Uddhav Thackeray asked his member of Parliament, Arvind Sawant, to resign from the Narendra Modi cabinet, effectively ending a three-decade-long partnership with the BJP.
On November 12, President’s Rule was imposed in Maharashtra as parties could not reach an agreement on how to govern the state. This was when Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress had started working out a common minimum programme to govern the state. As the arrangement started to take shape, a potential for stability seemed in the horizon. But that wasn’t to be. At least not just yet.
At midnight on November 23, Ajit Pawar, NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew, in a sudden move, extended support to the BJP. At 05:47 am, president’s rule was withdrawn and at 08:00 am, Devendra Fadnavis was sworn in as chief minister and Ajit Pawar as deputy chief minister. The move threw a spanner in the works of the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ – the Shiv Sena, NCP, Congress coalition.
An alliance between these three political parties had to be born out of extreme political necessity. As ideologies go, Shiv Sena and Congress are on two ends of the political spectrum and NCP somewhere in the middle. However, the political contests in rural Maharashtra are primarily between Shiv Sena and NCP. Thus, while a political deal was being worked out, political workers in the lower rung had their doubts about the sustainability of such a coalition.
When Ajit Pawar decided to support the BJP, Sharad Pawar said this was his own decision and the party was not in agreement with Ajit. On the day the new Fadnavis-Pawar government was called to prove its majority in the House, the duo resigned. Meanwhile, Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress had decided on a governance structure and Uddhav Thackeray was decided to be the chief minister.
A semblance of sanity returned in Maharashtra with a government in place. The next two years would see the COVID-19 pandemic that would wreak havoc in the state. From the crisis at hand, Maharashtra emerged but its government had weakened. Uddhav Thackeray was forced to be away from affairs of the government because of a spine surgery. Sharad Pawar was giving birth to stillborn conceptions of opposition unity. And the BJP was biding time for what critics call its ‘Operation Lotus’.
Trouble came to Maha Vikas Aghadi’s doors when the BJP won five out of 10 seats in the Rajya Sabha elections. Narendra Modi’s party was expected to win four but ended up winning five on account of cross-voting. Behind this cross-voting was Shiv Sena MLA Eknath Shinde.
Shinde falls in the second rung of Shiv Sena leaders, just after the Thackerays. A working-class political activist who found his way into politics through Shiv Sena legend Anand Dighe, Shinde turned incommunicado after the Rajya Sabha polls. He emerged after days at a hotel in Gujarat’s Surat where he had secured the support of some Shiv Sena MLAs and was throwing an open challenge to Uddhav Thackeray.
For Shinde to avoid falling into the deep pit of India’s anti-defection law, he needed to secure the support of 37 MLAs, two-thirds of the total number of MLAs of the party. While trying to secure the support, Shinde received a call from Uddhav Thackeray. The 10-minute call prompted him to pack up from Surat check-in into Guwahati’s Radisson Blu hotel. By Thursday evening, Shinde is said to have secured the support of around 40 MLAs.
Eknath Shinde says he does not want to split the Shiv Sena. He said that Shiv Sena is about Hindutva and the party should form a government with BJP and rule Maharashtra. For Shinde, the Maha Vikas Aghadi is an unnatural coalition. Uddhav Thackeray and his supporters, however, don’t seem keen on the idea.
While the situation is developing still with Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut trying to keep the conversation alive, Uddhav has already left the chief minister’s residence and has gone to ‘Matoshree’ – the family home of the Thackerays. The situation is Maharashtra continues to develop with every possibility still on the table. Politics remains a game of numbers and numbers will seal the fate of Maharashtra.