Maharashtra's Game of Thrones: What’s at stake, who wins & how?
A single-minded desire to keep BJP out will have consequences for both Congress and Shiv Sena.
The 'Game of Thrones' currently under way in Maharashtra is likely to upend the hitherto binary (secular verses nationalist) discourse adopted by the two major long-standing political alliances, Congress-NCP and BJP-Shiv Sena. The timing of the belligerence and brinksmanship adopted by Shiv Sena is particularly perplexing, as two of the three seminal issues championed by the original architects (Hindu Hridaysamrat Balasaheb Thackeray and the duo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani) of their decades-old alliance with the BJP – namely abrogation of Article 370 and building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya – have been achieved swiftly in the first few months of the NDA government's second term at the Centre with a growing clamour among Shiv Sena, BJP supporters to expedite the third move, namely passage of the Uniform Civil Code.
The mandate returned by the Maharashtra electorate gave a comfortable majority to the pre-poll alliance of BJP and Shiv Sena, with the opposite camp well short of the half-way mark. But Shiv Sena’s insistence on a rotating the chief ministership and equal sharing of ministerial berths despite winning less than half the seats than the BJP has pushed the alliance to the edge.
Shiv Sena’s scathing attacks on BJP's central leadership, overt overtures towards NCP and an expectation that NCP would take the lead in convincing its ideologically rigid partner Congress to form a ménage à trois has culminated in the BJP refusing to form the government, citing lack of majority.
It will be interesting to look at the challenges and opportunities posed by these cloak-and-dagger games for each of the four players.
The Congress will be particularly pleased at the fraying of the BJP’s oldest alliance and in having stopped BJP's saffron juggernaut from capturing power in India’s richest state. Many of its elected legislators have been deprived of power for last five years and are facing hardship after losing clout in the cash-rich fiefs of co-operative banks, co-operative sugar factories and private educational institutes.
They are reportedly piling pressure on the Congress high command to shed its ideological untouchability towards Shiv Sena. The Congress high command understands the treacherous terrain it is treading on. Besides doubts over the longevity of such an ideologically impossible-to-reconcile alliance, it would blow to smithereens any hope that the party harbours to revive itself in the Hindi heartland. Congress' frenemies, like the Samajwadi Party and BSP, will launch a blitzkrieg against this ideological betrayal. Even other friendly secular parties like the Communists, TMC, RJD and DMK will shy away from having any truck with the Congress in their spheres of influence. Whispers of pursuing soft Hindutva will grow into a loud clamour with the party receiving severe backlash among minorities.
The BJP would be losing this battle in Maharashtra, but yet be mightily satisfied with the mortal weakening of the Congress' ideological appeal in the secular block. Even extending outside support or staging a walkout during a confidence motion tabled by a Shiv Sena-NCP government is bound to create these upheavals for the party.
The NCP is a regional party (actually a sub-regional one, as its appeal remains largely confined to the sugar-belt of western Maharashtra), deriving its support primarily from among the numerically-dominant Maratha caste. It has far more latitude than its partner to consider a tieup with the Shiv Sena, as it is assured of its support base that was galvanised by its wily leader, who fought almost single-handedly in the face of large-scale desertions of influential satraps.
The campaign was marked by rabid rabble rousing with overt appeals being made to overthrow a ‘Brahmin-led’ (euphemism employed was ‘Peshwai’ in reference to Brahmin Peshwas, who wielded real power in 18th century and RSS top brass traditionally dominated by Maharashtrian Brahmins) government that found salience among a section of the restive Maratha youth in rural areas, especially in western Maharashtra and parts of Marathwada.
As an army cannot thrive without adequate rations, a political party cannot sustain without power and levers of treasury for long. With hopes of attaining power only in one state, NCP feels the compulsion to form the government and regain ascendancy in its lost spheres of influence in the cooperative enterprises most acutely. This primal instinct will trump any fear of losing ideological appeal among the minorities, if the NCP were to align with Shiv Sena.
The Congress can hardly afford such ideological malleability!
Any attempt by Shiv Sena to tie up with Congress-NCP can upset its core supporters, who have been raised on the twin planks of hardcore Hindutva and nativist-appeal of Marathi Manoos having the first right on the state's resources. Shiv Sena's raison dêtre has been opposition of minority appeasement pursued by secular parties and vigorous advocacy of hot-button Hindutva causes. For instance, Shiv Sena's strong advocacy of weeding out illegal immigrants from the country and adoption of National Register of Citizens would be anathema to its secular partners.
Although Shiv Sena has lately broadened its appeal among non-Marathi speakers in its stronghold of Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), it primarily draws support among Marathi speakers. Although MNS has edged it out in pursuing nativist policies more aggressively, the two compete for aggressive championing of causes that would accord primacy to Marathi speakers over others, especially in MMR.
The Congress with its pan-India appeal simply cannot afford to fuel these nativist fires without being adversely affected in other parts of India.
Although the BJP would be ruing its naivete in ceding such a large number of seats to Shiv Sena and effectively putting it at its partner’s mercy, it needs to start deeply introspecting as to how it can broaden its appeal to carve out a majority on its own in future. In the MMR, the BJP has carved out a strong vote bank among the Hindi-speaking voters from UP, Bihar, which were traditionally Congress supporters. With the Congress' decimation in those states and BJP's ascendancy there, these voters have firmly gravitated to the saffron party. BJP has fused this support group with its traditional Gujarati-Marwari support base.
BJP can deal a body blow to Shiv Sena by broadening its appeal among the Marathi speakers in MMR by assuaging their concerns of being excluded in BJP's local power structure. It, thus, needs to 'Marathi-ise' itself in MMR. With its rapidly rising population, MMR's salience in terms of number of seats is only going to rise over time compared with those in rural areas.
BJP's second priority should be to 'Maratha-ise' more in the rural pockets, especially western Maharashtra and Marathwada. This would blunt the opposition’s dog-whistle campaign of BJP being a party dominated by Brahmins, and allow it to emerge as a broader congregation accommodating more vigorously the numerically-strong Maratha community, whose interests the BJP has pursued by successfully granting them reservation in jobs and education.
In conclusion, it will be instructive to watch how an alliance full of ideological contradictions between the Shiv Sena and secular forces shapes up. A single-minded desire to keep BJP out will have serious consequences for both Congress and Shiv Sena in the long run. The NCP would grow at the cost of its alliance partners. BJP would regret losing the immediate battle, but hope to achieve its dream of ruling the state on its own by freeing itself off coalition compulsions and pursuing its nationalist agenda, secure in the belief that a Shiv Sena wedded to secular forces would rapidly lose its relevance among its core support base, make it gravitate towards BJP.
(The author is a politico-economic analyst. Views expressed are personal)