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New order in Maharashtra

Three unlikely partners have come together, but the alliance could be more durable than expected

By Kumar Ketkar

  • Published 30.11.19, 12:59 AM
  • Updated 1.12.19, 12:58 PM
Newly elected Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray addresses the media at Sahyadri Guest House after the first cabinet meeting, in Mumbai on Thursday, November 28, 2019
Newly elected Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray addresses the media at Sahyadri Guest House after the first cabinet meeting, in Mumbai on Thursday, November 28, 2019 PTI photo

First things first. To understand the tumultuous events in Maharashtra of recent days, journalists, armchair political analysts and the like must accept that politics, like life, can be far more complex than it may appear. Second is that in politics, parties identify a common enemy, or rival, first — even before they choose their friends. Third, not one week, but one day — even a few hours — can be a long time in Maharashtra politics. The fourth revelation to many is that if they believed Modi-Shah are invincible in election and power games, they’re mistaken. Also, if the Modi-Shah team thinks all local, regional and small parties can be devoured by cunning, blackmail and bribes, they won’t succeed. Therefore, if the ‘Gang of Four’ of Modi-Shah-Doval-Bhagwat feels they can define everyone’s fate and future, they’re living in fantasy land.

Now for a rundown on key players in the Maharashtra political drama. While it’s useful to have administrative and legislative experience, it’s not the most crucial point in running a government. More important is an ability to be team leader, particularly when it’s a multi-hued coalition. This leader must have communication skills, the ability to comprehend issues and the patience to resolve emerging conflicts.

So far, Uddhav Thackeray has faced down several big party rebellions. There was the one by Narayan Rane, the high-profile former chief minister with money and muscle power. Then there was his cousin, Raj, seen as more charismatic than Uddhav. He walked away with a bang, giving the impression he would steal the thunder, but Uddhav, as a leader should be, was calm and patient. Also, there were reports that many second and third-rank leaders had succumbed to Amit Shah’s alleged bribery, blackmail and intimidation. But again, Uddhav kept his cool, even though he was worried.

In the past, he supported Congress candidates Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee for the post of president, despite BJP threats of a possible alliance split. Despite being part of the alliance, and indeed the weaker partner, he often confronted the Modi-Shah rule. Sometimes he gave in, on other occasions he challenged them. It was a tough tightrope walk for him.

Uddhav is well-aware he doesn’t “know” everything and will need to consult others. He isn’t rude or arrogant and will listen to experienced bureaucrats and experts in fields like agriculture, industry and urban development. Also, he’s got no qualms about taking advice from top politicians like Sharad Pawar, Balasaheb Thorat and Jayant Patil who have political and administrative experience. In fact, “ignorance” in this regard will prove to be an asset as he’s got no preconceived notions; prejudices -- political or personal; no hatreds and no desire to pursue vendettas. Most important, he’ll be the first 100 per cent urban chief minister who was born, brought up and has lived all his life in Mumbai. He doesn’t have an agricultural base or an RSS-style organisational or ideological foundation. Though he inherited militant Hindutva, he’s been consciously distancing himself from it, realising pragmatically the need to live with the Congress and NCP.

Moreover, Uddhav is aware that if he pursues aggressive Hindutva, the coalition will collapse. So, he’ll push the communal agenda to the backburner and work on populist issues. He’ll go out of his way to help the farmers’ lobby, particularly because he’s unfamiliar with that sector.

Sharad Pawar wasn'n the only obvious architect. Less known is the tremendous back stage management and political acumen of Sanjay Raut. He was the only person continuously coordinating with Sharad Pawar, Sonia Gandhi's team, disgruntled elements in the Sena, hostile media and Uddhav himself. He used the Sena mouthpiece “Samna” to maximum effect for propaganda, pursuant appeals and to position the Sena in the new coalition.

I don’t want to predict who will behave or misbehave to lead to crisis or collapse of the Uddhav government. Bolts from the blue are always possible. After all, it’s not a “perfect” coalition. It is born out of a deficit trust crisis, compulsions and political chaos in the ruling BJP-Sena alliance. If Modi-Shah had not tried to marginalise the Sena, humiliate Uddhav and crush or bulldoze the partner, the new coalition would not have come about. It is the extreme arrogance, overconfidence, political immaturity and distrust of everyone outside the Gang of Four that led to the split. Uddhav had “behaved”, even caved in several times, and tried to adjust. That was taken as a sign of his helplessness, his surrendering style and fear of blackmail.

But when driven to the wall, with no ropes left to hang on to, Uddhav pounced back, with Sanjay Raut strategising the show, without light at the end of tunnel. That light came from Sharad Pawar who himself had been suffering from isolation and humiliation from directed ED and IT departments. Congress showed patience and maturity, knowing that while it did not have much leverage, without them the new coalition cannot come about. So it took time, but when it came, the forces joined with full force and conviction. That means no “outside support” but joining the government from within.

The government will go through hiccups, conflicts and hurdles created by the Modi-Shah regime. But they know, divided they fall; united by whatever compulsions, they survive. All three of them are individually weak, but their individual weakness has become their collective strength.

Kumar Ketkar is a former editor and a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha

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