A few years ago, and certainly a decade or so ago, it would have been unimaginable for the swearing-in of a Shiv Sena Chief Minister at Shivaji Park, Mumbai, to have passed off without even a hint of controversy. Never mind controversy, the installation of Uddhav Thackeray as the leader of a new Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) was greeted by an outpouring of media goodwill.
It didn’t stop at the fact that the election of Uddhav Thackeray was marked by Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule playing hostess. She greeted everyone with a smile and a hug and posed happily for photographs with a sheepish Ajit Pawar whose expression was markedly sheepish. On a more serious plane, the swearing-in ceremony was accompanied by commentators expressing their earnest hope that what happened in Maharashtra would be accompanied by a similar Aghadi (front) of all anti-BJP forces in the rest of the country. What caused unconcealed glee and happiness was the fact that the heir of Balasaheb Thackeray was careful to not repeat his father’s abrasive comments on either Muslims or secularism. Instead, like a good boy just out of a reformatory, Uddhav promised to adhere by the Constitution and take everyone along.
It is still too early to be certain whether or not the tiger has really changed its stripes. For all that we know, it could all be an elaborate charade and Maharashtra will wake up one fine morning to realise that the more things change the more they remain the same. Uddhav may be on secularist probation, just as he is under close observation of those who believed in the political philosophy of the late Balasaheb Thackeray. Depending on his conduct over the next few months, the great editorial class will pronounce judgment. They will either conclude that politics is not really about ideology and that secular politics, as defined by those who were nurtured in the Congress gharana, is the default position. Alternatively, they will claim Uddhav took everyone for a royal ride along Bori Bunder and that it is impossible to remove the saffron from the Sena.
Whatever the reality, the social establishment of Mumbai has concluded that it is better to sup with the party that changed Bombay to Mumbai — and recall the heartburn that innocuous decision caused — than to have Narendra Modi’s disciples in charge of the Mantralaya. This was not a decision taken under coercion. It was a decision taken on the belief that with the Congress and the NCP in coalition, the old style of politics marked by patronage and strategic diversion of the state’s resources can resume unimpeded.
Was this grand embrace of a party that was always singled out for its rough and ready ways in the past a consequence of the circumstances that led to the formation of the Aghadi? In hindsight, the BJP will lament the events that began with Ajit Pawar’s all-too-brief spat with his uncle and concluded with Devendra Fadnavis’s resignation following the Supreme Court order to hold a floor test without any delay. This is less because the move was rash or that it offended some people’s definition of “constitutional morality” or even that Fadnavis’s swearing-in happened by surprise and at an unearthly hour. The simple truth, however unpalatable, is that it this coup was decried because it didn’t succeed. Had Sharad Pawar failed to guard his MLAs, Amit Shah — whose role in this drama stems more from reputation than hard evidence — would have been crowned Chanakya yet again with about as much fanfare as the news channels can muster. The BJP is being decried because it failed.
However, there is another dimension. The past few days have witnessed the social media getting all excited over two maps of India that basically suggests that the control of the BJP over the states of India is shrinking. In other words the difficulties the Narendra Modi Government may encounter in pushing through decisive legislation through the Rajya Sabha in the coming years is being celebrated with glee. It does not matter that the slow pace of legislation, including stuff that is essentially non-contentious, will impede governance and indirectly slow India’s growth trajectory. What seems to matter to the ancien regime is the fact that the notion of a strong government will prove illusory.
The biggest setback to elite control over the power structure happened in May 2019 when the Modi Government was voted back to power with a conclusive majority. It essentially meant that India would have a strong Government that would not be subject to sectional pressure and blackmail. Maharashtra has offered a possible way to puncture this drift towards decisive governance. That is why it is being celebrated with more enthusiasm than would have been the case had the original BJP-Shiv Sena alliance remained firmly intact after the election. Even the hint of political uncertainty has offered hope to the vultures who were fearful of starvation death in the New India promised by Modi. They believe they can now weather the storm with sustenance from India’s financial capital and the richest State.
I don’t know how the voters of Maharashtra have reacted to this realignment that wasn’t on offer during the election. I suspect it won’t be long before we find out. As things stand — and at the risk of being proved horribly wrong —Maharashtra will probably vote again by the summer of 2021. It is difficult at this point to anticipate the verdict but what will be particularly interesting will be the popular reaction to the roaring tiger that has ended up as a domesticated pussy cat.