Signals from the tug of war in Maharashtra

We don’t know which way the imbroglio over the formation of the government in Maharashtra will end. At this stage, all manner of possibilities are being discussed. Whichever way this goes, there are some striking lessons in the way the BJP has been checkmated by its partner of more than 25 years. In politics as in life, challenge can come from the unlikeliest of quarters, in the unlikeliest of ways, and victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat, just as defeat can be inflicted when victory is assured. So it is in Maharashtra, where the BJP-Shiv Sena has run what has been the most enduring of political alliances in recent times. Yet for the Shiv Sena, the writing on the wall is clear. The BJP is eating into its vote share, slowly but surely, and it is only a matter of time before the national party effectively swallows up the local party that has its roots in standing up for the Marathi manoos and “sons of the soil”. Political calculations from the perspective of the Shiv Sena appear clearly to dictate that the BJP has to be stopped. It is quite easy to love God, and fight for Lord Ram and the temple at Ayodhya. Loving your political partner – well, that’s a tall order and not always easy!

The break in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra tells us that it is quite easy to love God, and fight for Lord Ram and the temple at Ayodhya. Loving your political partner – well, that’s a tall order and not always easy!

Seen in this light, discussions toward an alliance between the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress to snatch power from the BJP is not as odd as it can be made to sound in terms of conventional political arithmetic. It is true that the mandate was for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine, that they were in a pre-poll alliance and they fought against the Congress-NCP alliance. In terms of vote share, the ruling alliance won with 42.17 per cent of the votes, the Congress-NCP got 32.58 per cent of the votes and clearly lost (though they did better than was expected of them). Yet, that is the picture on the surface. Dig a little, and it will not be difficult to see the fissures that are inevitable when a large centralised party, led today essentially by two people who wield overwhelming control and a thumping national mandate to boot, gets perceived as a monolith that can hammer away at any other political force, including its allies.

...while the BJP has had its way and has pushed the political agenda in the direction it desires, in its stupendous success it has sown the seeds of discontent in the unlikeliest of corners. In Maharashtra, it has taken the form of a local party asserting its local pride and standing up to what it will now present as diktats from New Delhi and the sultans who control the BJP.

Here is the case of the BJP ready and willing to break a long-standing alliance rather than share the office of the Chief Minister with its ally of 25 years. It’s a simple and clear argument: The BJP is the bigger party. The BJP rules at the Centre. How can the Shiv Sena dictate to this party? Or, how long can they hold out against it? The case against this is equally clear from the perspective of the Shiv Sena: If the Sena doesn’t assert its rights, the BJP with all its political and money power will snatch the ground from under its feet. So better it is to break the alliance now rather than repent later. There is nothing more to be gained by the Shiv Sena by being in an alliance with the BJP once the BJP has become too big for comfort.

In that framing is a larger reality of what is going wrong for the BJP leadership at the political level, apart from the disappearing jobs, the failing economy, the rising tensions (and lately, rising inflation). The Opposition is decimated but now the allies can begin to see the party and its ways as a threat. The BJP, it seems, is now perfectly poised to put off friends and foes alike as it takes on the colour of a party that will work on backward and forward integration so that it controls all levers of power – from panchayats to parliament, from institutions to civil society groups and from social media to government media. What space is then left for others to play on, and this question gets asked less by the decimated opposition and more anxiously by allies like the Shiv Sena.

The political tapestry of India and its inherent fabric and structure may not allow for overwhelming control of the kind the BJP has imposed on the nation.

The political tapestry of India and its inherent fabric and structure may not allow for this kind of overwhelming control. It is true that a good part of the opposition has been silenced, that institutions have bent to the demands of powers that be and that there are many despondent at the direction of the nation. Consider that J & K has been without stable Internet (and often no internet for many, including journalists) for over 100 days. Yet, there are hardly any protests in India. J&K journalists sat silently in protest in a picture that showed how much they had been let down and felt defeated. This defeat is not only in the face of the brutal force of the administration but also at the lack of voice of fellow citizens in the rest of the nation.

So, while the BJP has had its way and has pushed the political agenda in the direction it desires, in its stupendous success it has sown the seeds of discontent in the unlikeliest of corners. In Maharashtra, it has taken the form of a local party asserting its local pride and standing up to what it will now present as diktats from New Delhi and the sultans who control the BJP.  Of course, this is only one probable way the impasse will end and there are other political options playing out in the background. But this much can be said: trust between the BJP and the Shiv Sena is lost.  This loss of trust is a local event but it casts a long shadow on the national scene in the sense that it messages the party and its powerful leadership duo as not worthy of trust by its own allies.

In all of this, the outgoing Chief Minister Devendra Phadnavis is only an unfortunate victim, caught in the middle with little leverage now either with the Sena or with his own party.  He may look like the villain but only in so far as he is the face of the BJP as a party of power, force, determination and single-minded devotion to keep growing its canvas and dictating the political agenda  -- not only on issues like secularism but also on controlling the Shiv Sena. And in the strange ways in which systems can hit back, it is the Shiv Sena of all parties that has blown the whistle and started to fight back – to protect itself, and who knows, may be even begin the journey to reclaim the space of centrist politics that has been pulled far too much to the right by the BJP.

In all its success, the BJP never had the ways of building together in an inclusive manner. As the writer and teacher Donella H. Meadows wrote in her book 'Thinking in Systems', quoting a Sufi teaching story: “You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and’.”