Between 2014 and 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena were in power in Maharashtra, albeit with the Sena as a junior ally with truncated authority in the Devendra Fadnavis-led regime.
Upset at the loss of authority as the dominant partner in the saffron alliance, the Shiv Sena would make noises about walking out. A Sena minister claimed they went around with resignation letters in their pockets, yet stopped short of pulling the plug.
Then, a senior BJP leader accused the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of playing the role of a scheming neighbour who engineers discord in an otherwise happy household. Today, as the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress share power in an uneasy alliance in Maharashtra, this allegory may be coming back to haunt the NCP as the BJP fishes in troubled waters to make a comeback in India’s most urbanised and industrialised state.
That the MVA was an uneasy and expedient alliance to begin with was one of the state’s worst kept secrets. Rumours of an impending collapse of the newly established order began doing the rounds soon after Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in as the Chief Minister in November 2019. BJP leaders would derive vicarious pleasure in giving fresh deadlines for the MVA’s dismembering. But to borrow Mark Twain’s comment, reports of its death have turned out to be highly exaggerated so far.
But fresh tailwinds and tea leaf patterns suggest some political activity may be taking place behind the scenes. A flurry of meetings, including those between NCP chief and MVA paterfamilias Sharad Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis, Uddhav Thackeray and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and some clandestine ones that are said to have taken place far from prying eyes led to heightened speculation.
The Congress said it would contest elections on its own strength rather than in an alliance with its two senior allies. This led Uddhav to launch an uncharacteristic fusillade at it for playing politics when people were in the throes of an unprecedented hardship.
It was followed by Shiv Sena legislator Pratap Sarnaik, a former blue-eyed boy of Matoshree (the Thackeray family residence at Bandra East, which is also the party’s nucleus of power) calling on the leadership to mend fences with the BJP.
Sarnaik’s letter said this was necessary to get the central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) off the backs of Sena leaders like him, transport minister and Uddhav confidante Anil Parab, and party MLA Ravindra Waikar. And therein lies the rub.
In its latest action, the ED has provisionally attached assets and properties of a sugar mill in Satara district under the money laundering law in connection with the alleged Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank (MSCB) scam. It has said that a company linked to Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar and his wife is involved in the case.
NCP leader and former home minister Anil Deshmukh is also facing his own share of troubles. He had to quit the cabinet after the Bombay High Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a preliminary inquiry into charges of corruption levelled by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh.
When questioned about the chances of the government’s longevity, a Congress leader said much depends on how hard the central agencies crack down on alleged wrongdoing by MVA leaders.
A senior NCP leader and cabinet minister in the state said that the BJP is trying to implement the West Bengal model, wherein it will induct “tainted” leaders being probed by central agencies.
However, BJP leaders claim that rather than work actively to bring down the government, they would let it collapse due to its own contradictions.
The BJP, which is biding its time on the opposition benches despite being the single-largest in the assembly, faces a peculiar situation. With 106 seats in a 288-strong House, it cannot bank on engineering defections alone. To gain the strength of numbers, it must obtain the support of either the NCP or the Shiv Sena.
A section of the Shiv Sena’s Lok Sabha MPs feels that an alliance with the BJP will boost its chances in the elections. That the Sena competes with the NCP, and to an extent with the Congress, in these seats has queered the pitch further.
The political grapevine says that the impending Union cabinet reshuffle may reveal which way the winds may eventually blow in Maharashtra. There is a perception that Fadnavis, who rose to power in 2014 as the BJP’s dark horse, lacked the necessary chemistry with the Shiv Sena, leading to a deterioration in ties between the two parties.
If Fadnavis, who is said to have nurtured an ambition to shift to Delhi in 2009, is given a significant portfolio in the Modi cabinet, some of the impediments to a likely BJP-Shiv Sena tie up may be cleared. However, Fadnavis, who is still smarting after Uddhav ousted him as the chief minister, is not said to be eager to throw his towel in the ring.
Alternatively, the inclusion of Shiv Sainik-turned-bete noir Narayan Rane, who posed an existential dilemma of sorts for the Sena after he quit in 2005 (Sainiks alternatively claim he was expelled), may be akin to holding a red rag to a bull. This may indicate that the BJP has formally burnt its bridges with the erstwhile ally, and is willing to hedge its bets elsewhere.
Hence, as most political minds agree, the coming fortnight may see many Faustian pacts being struck as the otherwise staid political landscape in the state awaits a fresh churn.
The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal.