The promiscuity of Indian political parties is well known. The past four decades are riddled with instances of the strangest bedfellows getting together to be in power. The most recent of course is the soap opera played out in Maharashtra. Two parties — the BJP and the Shiv Sena — which had been allies for the past 30 years fought the election together. They got a mandate to rule the state jointly, but fell out after the results were declared on October 24 over the Sena's claims that they had a 50:50 arrangement to share the chief ministership. The BJP denied it had made any such promise and, after a 16-day stand-off, decided to call the Sena's bluff.
However, much to the BJP's consternation, the Sena made good on its threat — after lengthy tripartite negotiations, the Sena, the NCP and the Congress decided to form a government.
The real drama, however, was yet to begin. Before the coalition could present themselves to the governor to prove that they had a majority, the BJP jumped the gun. In an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked Rule 12 of the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, which gives the prime minister emergency powers to take a unilateral decision and get ex-post facto approval from the cabinet. This provision is used only to meet a situation of extreme urgency or unforeseen contingency. This was obviously neither. This rule was used to wake up the President early in the morning to revoke President's rule in the state to enable the governor to preside over the swearing-in of a so-called coalition government of BJP chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar of the NCP, who claimed he had the support of 32 MLAs. This formality, too, was completed by 7.50 am.
It was at this point that the wily Maratha strongman, Sharad Pawar, stepped in to protect his flock of MLAs and ultimately persuaded nephew Ajit Pawar to return to the NCP fold. The result was that the Fadnavis government lasted only 80 hours, leaving the BJP red-faced and its erstwhile ally, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, firmly in the chief minister's chair. It is a mystery to me how astute, seasoned politicians like Amit Shah and the prime minister could not only let this happen but also be a party to this humiliation.
There are several lessons the BJP can learn from Maharashtra. It cannot afford to take its allies for granted even when it is the senior partner. Also reinforced is the fact that people tend to vote differently in state and central elections. Issues such as national security, the dilution of Article 370 and the image of a strong leader play out well on the national stage, but at the regional level, issues like the quality of governance and jobs dominate the electoral narrative. Just six months ago, the BJP came to power at the Centre with a thumping majority by itself, even better than its performance in the previous general election. In December 2017, the party ruled over 71 per cent of India's land mass. Two years later, the figure is down to 40 per cent. It now rules, alone or with allies, four large states and 12 smaller ones.
The BJP's decline in the states comes even as the party has increased its dependence on every tool in the political playbook, from engineering defections to form governments to rewarding defectors with plum posts. Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Goa... there is a long list of states where the BJP has engineered defections to undermine governments. The party targets corruption, but has no qualms about accepting tainted leaders into its fold. It has also been accused of using central investigative agencies against its political opponents. Not being able to form a government in India's wealthiest state, Maharashtra, has dented its image of electoral invincibility. Despite being the largest party in the state, it was outmanoeuvred by veteran Sharad Pawar.
Most importantly, one of the reasons for the BJP's phenomenal resurgence was its clean image and the impression that it took the moral high ground. Once it claimed to be the party with a difference. With its recent actions, it is now a party that is no different from the rivals it once attacked. The lustre of rectitude has faded.
Our cover story, 'Riding the Tiger', put together by our bureau, Senior Associate Editor Kiran D Tare, Senior Deputy Editor Uday Mahurkar and Senior Editor Kaushik Deka, examines the rise of Uddhav Thackeray as an unlikely chief ministerial candidate. Now the big question is, how long will this coming together of bitter enemies in Maharashtra last? Will the glue of power prove stronger than their conflicting ideologies? Also, whether the BJP has learnt any lessons from this experience. We will know soon enough, in the forthcoming state elections.
On a different note, I would like to congratulate our Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa for being the joint winner of the Press Council of India's National Award for Rural Journalism 2019 for the India Today cover story 'The New Bharat' in the issue dated December 31, 2018. It is always good to be recognised for our efforts at chronicling the India story as it unfolds.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, Riding the Tiger, for December 9, 2019)