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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Maharashtra: Tightrope walk awaits unlikely allies

Even Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray seemed a little surprised that he and his two new-found allies, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), had managed to achieve what they had.

Written by ZEESHAN SHAIKH , Sandeep A Ashar , Shubhangi Khapre , Vishwas Waghmode | Updated: December 1, 2019 9:09:08 am
Maharashtra government formation, Maharashtra government, Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP govt, Maharashtra govt, Maharashtra Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena, Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, India news, Indian Express Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray with NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Congress president Balasaheb Thorat.

Unlikely alliance. Three-legged stool. Opportunistic. Ragtag. Power-hungry. Short shelf-life. From the polite to the contemptuous, many epithets have been used to describe the Maha Vikas Aghadi, Maharashtra’s newest political formation that took shape over an extraordinary month.

The reality is that three parties, one of them with a starkly different ideology to the other two, pulled off what many thought could never happen: buried their differences, put out a common minimum programme and managed to form a government.

Even Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray seemed a little surprised that he and his two new-found allies, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), had managed to achieve what they had. “Even today, I feel I have come here to give a memorandum to the CM,” he said on his first day in office.

But as the real work of running a government begins, what next?

Thackeray is certainly aware that he is walking a tightrope — he is the leader of a coalition with disparate ideologies, constituencies and interests. Shiv Sena’s core interest in this experiment is to reclaim ground that its erstwhile ally, BJP, had wrested from it. Thackeray will now have to ensure that the Shiv Sena’s loyal voter base does not feel alienated and at the same time keep the alliance together.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar giving away the chief ministership to Uddhav for all five years was a kick-start even though this is what is said to have led to nephew Ajit Pawar’s short-lived rebellion. Now, however, a tug of war is already underway between the Congress and NCP for the post of deputy CM. Besides, there is no consensus yet on who will get the Speaker’s post.

While six ministers have been sworn in, a Cabinet expansion can accommodate 37 more ministers, as per rules. A Cabinet full of stalwarts will test the coalition’s staying power, especially when the BJP has already indicated that it won’t miss any opportunity to corner the Thackeray government.

The new CM’s inexperience as an administrator and an elected politician may give rise to its own dynamics in the coalition.

The story of the 38 days that shook Maharashtra is essentially a Sharad Pawar story. The NCP chief did much of the heavy-lifting to bring the three parties together in the initial days. Then, waking up on the morning of November 23 to realise that his nephew Ajit Pawar had done a runner on him with at least a dozen party’s legislators, instead of having a meltdown, he rebuilt his party, MLA by MLA, finally managing to bring the family dissident back too.

Already the word on the street is that it is “saheb” (Pawar) who will hold the remote control of this government. His rich five-decade experience as an administrator, contacts across political parties that he brings to the table, his outreach across castes and communities, and his consensus-building abilities could benefit the alliance, and Thackeray in particular.

How the Sena, whose leader Balasaheb Thackeray once declared that he held the remote control to the then Shiv Sena-BJP government, views Pawar in this role, will set its own biting point in the alliance.

Well before the secret swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, the three sides had agreed as early as November 21 that the CMP would be based on the Constitution. This is said to have been Sharad Pawar’s idea.

Jairam Ramesh and Prithviraj Chavan sat with Pawar and other NCP leaders to finalise it. The NCP sold the idea to the Sena to see it as a commitment to the Constitution rather than secularism itself, and this is what the Sena is telling its cadres. Another compromise was on the 5 per cent quota for Muslims that the previous Congress-NCP had brought in, and which was cancelled by the last BJP-Sena government, with all three agreeing to “eliminate the social, educational and economic backwardness of the minority community” without mentioning quota, but by invoking constitutional guarantees.

Now the Congress hope is that it can use the alliance with a saffron party to shed its image of a ‘Muslim appeasement’ party, while the Sena, desperate to emerge out of the BJP’s shadow, hopes to reinvent itself as a soft saffron regional party for wider appeal. For the NCP, which draws much of its clout from state-run cooperatives, staying close to power is vital to rebuild its brand of regional politics.However, the saffron vs secular divide in the alliance also remains the alliance’s most open faultline.

Within 24 hours of Thackeray’s swearing-in, an editorial in the Shiv Sena daily, Saamana, reached out to PM Narendra Modi invoking the “brotherly ties” between him and Thackeray.

Repairing ties with the Centre will be top on Thackeray’s agenda, especially since timely Central grants are key to fund welfare measures. Here, Pawar’s contacts in the BJP could be handy, but could trigger suspicion too, especially in the Congress. Despite the bhai-bhai mood, there remains a trust-deficit between the Congress and NCP, something the BJP may seek to exploit. Rifts in the future within the Shiv Sena over the perceived diluting of the Hindutva agenda may also give the Modi-Amit Shah duo a handle. There is also the small but niggling matter of ED and CBI investigations against both NCP and Congress members. To name a few — the irrigation scam, the Adarsh scam, the Maharashtra Sadan scam, the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank scam.

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