Tired of his wife’s constant bickering, a husband loses his cool and tells her, “I won’t mind killing myself, but I will make you a widow”. This popular anecdote, that speaks about a section of the argumentative Marathi manoos, also sums up the Shiv Sena’s — that claims to be the custodian of Marathi interests — current predicament. The Sena may have been successful in robbing its senior partner, the BJP, of the chance to be in office in Maharashtra for the time being. But in the bargain, it has also exposed itself to an existential challenge. The political situation in Maharashtra also indicates how history repeats itself. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was anti-Congressism which brought political forces of all hues together, that has now been replaced by anti-BJPism.
First, about the Shiv Sena’s misadventure. Though the Sena-BJP stayed loyal to each other for nearly three decades, of late there were indications that major fissures were developing in the saffron alliance. The alliance was also showing signs of fatigue, which would otherwise have been described as normal in any relationship. But what was not normal in this case was the unwillingness of the now-senior partner, the BJP, to accept the reality. The BJP kept on painting a picture that everything was normal and ignored the Sena’s signals asking for “better treatment” (read a better deal in the alliance). Snubbed consistently by the BJP, the Sena was exasperated. Signs of its desperation became visible after the election results were out. The Sena was gleeful after the verdict, which had considerably weakened the BJP. However, it ignored the fact that the election outcome had weakened the Sena even more. The party thought of playing the role of the Big Brother, which it had conceded to the BJP. Hence, its demand for the chief minister’s post. It was naive for the Sena to expect that the BJP would give up the top post when the former’s numbers were little more than half of that of the latter. In the 288-member House, the BJP is the single-largest party with 105 MLAs while the Sena has 56. The Congress and NCP have 44 and 54 MLAs.
The situation offers only one option: Two v/s three. In other words, either BJP-Sena have to stay together to stake a claim or the other two — Congress and NCP — need one of the saffron siblings supporting them to reach the required number. That saffron sibling can only be Sena since there is no way for the BJP to accommodate the Congress or the NCP. So, taking a simplistic view of the situation, the Sena did what it should not have done.
It dared the BJP and dreamt of leading the state with the Congress and NCP in tow. But politics is not just about arithmetic, it’s also a lot about chemistry. The latter can change the former but the reverse is always less likely. As a result, the Sena caught itself hanging between the devil and deep sea as the Congress refused to sign on the dotted line. Completely unmindful of the Congress’s machinations, the Sena took its support for granted and went to stake claim only to realise there is no one to support it.
On the other hand, two politicians played their game astutely — Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar. First, Pawar actually did nothing but his sweet talk misled the Sena. Pawar indicated his willingness to support the Sena provided it gets the Congress on board. While doing that, though he took a high-moral ground citing an alliance with the Congress, the reality is that he knew that numbers are such that the NCP’s support alone isn’t enough to break the ice. On the other hand, Sonia Gandhi took her own time and refused to succumb to pressure from the Congress’s state satraps who were eager to join hands with the “communal” Sena. The alliance-in-the-making, Sonia must have realised, would have helped the NCP rather than the Congress. As a result, the Congress’s letter of support never came and the Sena was left in the lurch.
But this high-voltage drama also signifies the BJPs ability to convert friends into foes, the trait the Congress was once known to have. Ironical as it may sound, it took the Congress more than 60 years to reach this stage while the BJP has managed to earn this distinction in less than a decade. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the Congress that every other political party loved to hate. Now it’s the BJP that triggers such repulsive feelings amongst other parties — friends as well as competitors. In the end, the Congress and NCP may not have extended their support to the Sena, but the anti-BJPism of all these parties was the glue that brought them together.
The results from Maharashtra, along with the Haryana assembly elections, also have another message — to focus on the real issues facing the people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP chief Amit Shah had pinned great hopes on Maharashtra considering its size and importance. The duo had held more than a dozen rallies in the states. But the BJP’s performance was certainly underwhelming, to say the least. However, that should not be the BJP’s sole cause for concern. It should worry about the fact that it lost the important constituencies that Modi-Shah had singled out and had campaigned vigorously in.
In the end, the stalemate in Maharashtra will force everyone to get off their high-horse and introspect. More importantly, it’s bound to compel the BJP to soften its rhetoric and start addressing real issues like the state of the economy and growing unemployment.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 13, 2019 under the title ‘When siblings part’. The writer is editor, Loksatta.