Beyond the game of thrones, what next for Sena & NCP?

NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray. (PTI photo)

One of them splintered in 1999 out of the Congress party.
 
The other one, a flag-bearer of the Hindutva, came into being and proliferated with the tacit support of the Congress back in the 1970s, countering the left-backed trade unions in Mumbai’s textile mills with its hardline dogma of regionalism.
 
The irony is that the two regional parties, steered by two rival political families bound by personal friendship, came together to share power in Maharashtra under extraordinary circumstances, backed by the Congress party, as a small ally, that shirked off ideological baggage to keep away the BJP, and particularly, former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
 
Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena will not be the same again.
 
Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has lived another day with the almost 80-year-old patriarch – by far India’s wiliest politician as things stand – fending off a serious challenge from his very own nephew to split it and go with the BJP in an early morning coup – a coup that was not to be.
 
On Saturday and Sunday, when the three-party Sena-NCP-Congress government proved its majority – 169 of the 288 members voted in its favour – and Legislative Assembly got its speaker unopposed, the clouds of uncertainty looming for over a month over Maharashtra seemed to have cleared away.
 
Only for the time being though.
 
Although the echoes of the experiment of coming together of three divergent political parties – two regional and one national, albeit with a waning clout – to share power could go beyond Maharashtra in the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-dominated Indian political landscape, yet a large number of political commentators are unsure if Maharashtra is a settled case. This, they insist, is merely the end of Act I, Scene I, and that the plot of the political pot-boiler is still wide open and pregnant with possibilities.
 
What next?
 
Let’s begin with the Congress, the party still unsure about its future course. It has a pan-Maharashtra presence, although in some regions like Mumbai and Konkan it's very thin. Its support base is a vast section of Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and a section of upper Other Backward Castes (OBCs), namely the Marathas and Kunbis. The party won a mere 44 seats in a state it dominated not so long ago, with a little over 87 lakh votes, finishing fourth in the race, after the BJP’s 105 (1.41 crore votes), Sena’s 56 (90+ lakh votes) and NCP’s 54 seats (91 lakh votes). In a hung house – though the BJP rightly insists that the mandate was in favour of its pre-poll alliance with the Sena (161 seats) – the Congress with two former chief ministers in the tally would have played the part of a mute spectator. For it, the spectre of power came as a blessing in disguise.
 
History, however, shows that the Congress has lost its presence in states where it supported a regional ally – starting with the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.
 
The party’s long-term revival and reconstruction of its organisational apparatus would be forgotten, as we have seen since the mid-1980s, and chances are that it would further weaken, unless it seriously builds its organisation sooner than later. By aligning with Pawar and Thackeray it has however taken an out-of-the-box decision that the BJP leaders in Maharashtra are still to fully comprehend.
 
The NCP is the biggest gainer in the deal. A month before the elections, it was in a mess wrecked by the desertions, defections, and its own internal contradictions, until Devendra Fadnavis delivered a full toss to Sharad Pawar when the Enforcement Directorate named him in a state cooperative bank irregularities case, when the NCP chief was not even remotely linked with the bank. Pawar milked the opportunity to his benefit, worked hard to travel across the state to win sympathy and fought back state machinery.
 
In terms of the votes won, the NCP came second, winning a tad more than Shiv Sena’s votes, and re-claimed its turf of western Maharashtra’s sugar belt, mainly with the Maratha community.

If the BJP-Sena government was in place, if the normal politics had stayed the course, the NCP would be the principle opposition party, and the Congress a nowhere party in the state.
The three players with huge past baggage and animosities came to the table to do business because the BJP and the Sena, two oldest allies, fell apart on the question of who shall lead the government.
 
It was never the ideology, anyway. The glue was always power.
 
The BJP, rode on the charisma of Bal Thackeray in the 1990s, ate into the Sena vote share, piggy-backed on the regional Saffron ally’s mass appeal then, and strained its relations when it grew bigger.
 
The Sena perhaps realised – with some recent manoeuvrers by the BJP against its smaller allies in other states and Maharashtra too – that it would simply be swallowed by the Modi-Shah’s party if it were not to break free from its clutches. The timing could not have been any more perfect since the BJP fell 40 seats short of a majority in the 288-member house. The Sena’s support base of Mumbai locals and lower OBCs is in-tact, but increasingly targeted by the BJP, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the state capital.
 
The big risk, so to say, and a quantum leap was therefore taken by the Sena, when Uddhav Thackeray insisted that the BJP fulfilled its promise (no one is sure who made the promise and when) to give it the post of chief minister, and decided to exit the NDA when the BJP flatly refused.

How big Thackeray’s step was could be gauged by the fact that he agreed for a common minimum programme that made secularism the driving principle of the new alliance. How would he tread on this newly charted path will be worth watching because in its chequered past, his late father had always been reluctant to move close to the NCP, also a regional party and Sena’s main contender in a crowded political space. But Uddhav was also alert to the new realities of Indian politics that if he would not hold on to his turf, his party would disintegrate fast and probably be consumed by a resurgent BJP.

What’s more is also his decision to take the reigns in his own hands: The recluse Thackeray has come out of the shell to take the fight to the BJP, and stun Devendra Fadnavis, whose new-found giant ambitions are said to be his undoing in this game.
 
“I did not say I’d come back, but I did,” Thackeray, the chief minister, quipped on Sunday while greeting his friend and former chief minister Fadnavis, now relegated to the Opposition benchs. “I never dreamed of being here one day,” he said, with Aaditya, his young, bespectacled son, smiling on from the seat behind him.
 
Maharashtra’s turn of events is historic, with Pawar as a writer-director-producer, Uddhav a protagonist and a co-producer, and Sonia Gandhi, the Congress’ interim-president, a giant enabler of the plot.
 
For the Congress, keeping the BJP at bay is the number one priority, and so it went with the state satraps on the issue of backing the Sena-NCP game, neglecting its core ideological positions.

The triumvirate of these parties undertook a difficult exercise to share power and trump the Modi-Shah duo, making Fadnavis the collateral damage, because you can’t beat the BJP duo with old tricks.
 
With power as the glue, the Sena and the NCP won’t immediately disintegrate. But Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, a key character who spiced up the story for a while, won’t be quiet for long. His role in the new government isn’t decided or revealed, but he would want a large share of the cake.
 
For the Sena, the road here on would be interesting. The party has taken a decisive turn away from its plank of hardcore Hindutva and regionalism by aligning with the NCP and Congress, which will mean a new kind of politics. For its supporters, voters, and leaders, this means a long period of uncertainty that would be hidden for the time being behind the veil of power. Perhaps it knows that Mumbai is no more a Marathi manoos-dominated realm. The non-Marathis now far outweigh the ‘sons of the soil’.
 
The NCP has stagnated; it has not grown beyond its regional turf of western Maharashtra.

It’s a question of stagnation and relevance that bogs down two regional parties of divergent ideologies and styles in Maharashtra. What do they stand for, other than power? It’s a question that will confront the two when the euphoria over the government formation, wily manoeuvrers, and power play, ends.

(The writer is a Nagpur-based journalist and Roving Reporter of the People’s Archive of Rural India)
 
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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