The unprecedented turmoil in Maharashtra could potentially be a defining moment and a good omen in Indian politics, especially if the hitherto unimaginable combination of Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress is able to form a government and run it successfully for five years. Going by the developments on Friday that appeared to be a done deal but all hell broke loose on Saturday, when the BJP, in a post-midnight move, staged a coup of sorts and “formed” a government by roping in NCP leader Ajit Pawar to back them. By evening, however, the NCP claimed Ajit Pawar’s rebellion had been crushed and it had managed to keep its flock together. We will have to wait to see if NCP Supremo Sharad Pawar manages to reclaim lost ground when the new Chief Minister takes floor test. If he does, way will be paved for the alternative Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress combine, now called Mahavikas Aghadi, to form the government.
Conventional political wisdom makes us perceive the coming together of the three parties as a new low in the unabashed pursuit of power, but the BJP quickly moved in to show it can stoop to any level by getting on board a man it wanted to put in jail for “unprecedented corruption”. We tend to see Sena as hankering for a share of power that is disproportionate to its earning in the latest Assembly election, which, of course, isn’t far from truth. But we can’t blame Sena alone to be the greedy kind since Indian politics is replete with such examples.
In recent times, the BJP had done it in states like Goa, Manipur and Karnataka. So as far as Sena is concerned, greed for power isn’t the problem, its image as a party of regional chauvinists and vigilantes is. And that’s where analysts find Congress particularly liable to being seen as opportunistic since it is joining hands with an outfit that is completely at odds with it ideologically, and, in that sense, also coming across as a party desperate for power.
As regards NCP, ideological binding was always debatable since it has long dumped it when it became a partner in power with Congress led by “foreigner” Sonia Gandhi few years after parting ways with it on the issue of her foreign origin.
The contradiction in these varied perceptions about Sena and Congress vis-a-vis each other is so stark that it shouldn’t be missed. But it has been. How can we see both Sena and Congress having dumped their ideologies simultaneously? If Sena has dumped Hindutva, Congress doesn’t need to give up secularism and if Congress has given up secularism then Sena doesn’t need to dump its Hindutva.
So, which of the two parties has actually compromised on its ideology? Going by the statements coming from both sides, the Shiv Sena has yielded its Hindutva ground to insure its political survival against the mighty BJP that it has dared to ditch. Clearly, Sena can’t afford to speak of Hindutva if it wants Congress to come on board with it. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray canceling his proposed Ayodhya visit, which he had announced after the Supreme Court verdict on Ram temple and party’s spokesman Sanjay Raut extolling the “secular“ spirit of the Indian Constitution can be sighted to claim that it is the Sena that has put, at least for the time being, its hardcore Hindutva aside. Nothing has come out from the Congress that can be sighted to say that it has pushed secularism aside to grab power. To be fair, Congress’ declared aim is to keep BJP out of power, which is fine.
Another fact that needs to be seen as supporting the change in Sena outlook towards politics is that it has agreed to change the name of the proposed alliance from Mahashiv Aghadi to Mahavikas Aghadi. Accepting the dropping of the word “Shiv” from the name and replacing it with “Vikas” is a very daring political act and Sena must be complimented for it rather than being ridiculed. After all, is it not something which right-thinking people must support and encourage?
Having said that, we need to see these developments as good omen and an opportunity for all secular parties to grab with both hands. No matter what its past is, Sena has come a long way from being a narrow-minded Marathi chauvinist party to a more broad-based Hindutva party that has learnt to have all Hindus on board. So, it has the capacity to adapt to the political needs of the changing times.
In contrast, the BJP had always been an unabashedly sectarian party making no bones of its Hindu supremacist ideology. It resorted to the “development” plank trick to grab power in 2014 and instead of ushering in development it had promised, unleashed Hindutva agenda.
The Sena doesn’t have any chance of reverting to Hindutva during whatever time it remains in power with its two secular partners in case it forms the government along with them, if it wishes to stay politically afloat in future. Any act of brinkmanship would not only end its power run but would also land it in the proverbial “ghar ka na ghat ka” situation. Sena could try to do the reverse of what the BJP has done at Centre – walk the path of development and shun Hindutva. In fact, that’s the only productive and viable option that is now available to it to be able to stay alive five years down the line. It’s a cliff-hanger for Sena with its Hindutva ropes being cut off. So, it has to make the most of the opportunity by coming across to people in new avatar as a party of development.
Of course, it will have to also think about its future political direction after this maiden honeymoon with secular parties. Questions for it would be if it goes to the next election on development plank combined with an explicit soft Hindutva, if not on the plank of secularism, does it go alone or again in alliance with Congress and NCP and if the latter two would be magnanimous enough to yield any further space to it after the current compulsive courtship if they feel they can pull it off without their new friend? The Sena also needs to understand that once it spends five years as part of a secular alliance, there won’t be many options available for it to return to hard Hindutva as that space would then be entirely occupied by the BJP.
All said and done, for the Sena that has shifted gears from being a patently regional and chauvinistic party to one with nationalistic appeal going beyond linguistic pride, this is yet another chance to move upwards and transform itself into a modern party with broader outlook. It must learn from the examples in states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana that there is life outside Hindutva too.
For the Congress and NCP, it’s not only an opportunity to be back in the reckoning with their secular credentials intact but also to cultivate a new and unlikely future partner for a broader and stronger alliance against the BJP. With BJP’s political clout not likely to go down substantially in the near future, they would do better to nurture the Shiv Sena into a party that learns to see the virtues of being out of the narrow confines of Hindutva.
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