As Maharashtra embarks on a curious political experiment that has deep repurcussions on national politics, let us examine the six main political players whose actions would impact the politics of the state
Now that the Sena-NCP-Congress khichdi government has taken oath in Maharashtra, the governance will finally start after a gap of nearly 45 days. Uddhav Thackeray will have a six month hooneymoon period before he faces the music from opposition and the media. However, the politics in Maharashtra would be closely watched as this experiment of BJP vs “All other parties” in 2024 is the last hope of opposition and political fixers (so called Chanakyas) like Prashant Kishore.
Friends turned foes: Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray
The spectre of domination of India’s political scene by the BJP for another 10 years, has so terrified the other political parties that they are trying all kinds of combinations in state elections. The Samajwadi party and Bahujan Samaj Party alliance did not work in the Lok Sabha 2019 election. The Congress-JD(S) post-poll tie-up in Karnataka did not last long either. A new post poll tie-up is being tried between ideological opponents Shiv Sena and the Congress in Maharashtra. The success/ failure of this experiment will have a huge impact on the Lok Sabha 2024 election. If this experiment succeeds in Maharashtra, it will be tried across many states in the country, in the hope of dislodging the BJP. However if this experiment fails, then the opposition will have to try newer ideas to prevent a 15 year old rule for Narendra Modi.
The moves of these six big political players of Maharashtra will be closely watched closely in the coming months,
- Uddhav Thackeray: After his son Aditya became the first Thackeray to fight an election, Uddhav became the first member of his family to hold the top spot in the state. Uddhav took up the Chief minister post of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, the freshly minted coalition of the Shiv Sena with the UPA twins. Whether Uddhav willingly took the Chief Minister’s post or was nudged into it by Sharad Pawar and the Congress, we would know after a few years.
- Uddhav who has inherited his father’s role of the “remote control” over his party’s ministers and mayors in the past, has now ventured into unchartered territory. A chief minister’s post has active duties and responsibilities, unlike the party president’s post. A party president can get work done through his/ her lackies, but a Chief Minister cannot always delegate all tasks to his/ her ministers. Uddhav would have to reply to an aggressive opposition or media. As my friend and keen political watcher @RahulPalkar6 says, Uddhav has lost his immortaility and has become a mortal. He is now open to criticism for problems facing the state like drought, farmer suicides, investment in the state, crime and all other matters.
- Uddhav is known to have a big ego so it remains to be seen how he handles aggressive charges made by the opposition in the assembly or aggressive questioning by the media outside. He also has to handle a super CM in the form of Sharad Pawar. If Silver Oak (Pawar’s Mumbai residence) becomes an alternate power centre, Uddhav could find his authority challenged. A Chief Minister’s post requires the individual to work for long hours and can have a toll on health. It remains to be seen how Uddhav Thackeray handles all these challenges.
- Uddhav also enjoyed a good personal relationship with Fadnavis which got soured in the debate of whether the BJP promised a half term CM to the Sena. How Uddhav tries to engage with Fadnavis (his opposite number) in the assembly and outside remains to be seen.
- If Uddhav succeeds in running the government well with such disparate allies, his national profile would improve immensely. Uddhav’s govermnment would be touted by the national opposition as an alternate model to counter Modi’s NDA. A lot of the secularatti is hoping that this khichdi government becomes successful, as they hope for deliverance from Modi rule.
- Sharad Pawar: The adage “fortune favours the brave” best suits Sharad Pawar in this assembly election cycle. Around two months ago, Sharad Pawar had his back to the wall with the BJP having poached a lot of his MLAs and influential leaders. But he smartly used the ED summons in the peak co-operative bank case, to generate sympathy for himself in his base of Western Maharashtra.
- The NCP won half of it’s 54 MLAs in this region. His campaigning strategy even helped his ally the Congress in Western Maharashtra. However, this was not enough to prevent the pre-poll NDA alliance from crossing the simple majority mark. However, lady luck smiled on him when Uddhav Thackeray fighting for his party’s survival broke away from his partner BJP, on the question of a half-term CM post. The pragmatic Pawar allowed Uddhav to have his trophy (Chief Minister post for full five years) while claiming important ministries like Home and Finance for his party. He effectively saved NCP from disintegration with the elixir of power, for the next several months.
- Sharad Pawar has emerged as the senior statesman in the MVA government in Maharashtra and has seen his profile and prestige elevated nationally. I am not sure if he is still dreaming of the Prime Minister post in 2024, but given that he would be 84 years old by then. However, he has emerged as a power centre in the state. Pawar may try to position himself like a super CM or he may stay out of the limelight but still wield real power in this government. It now remains to be seen what does Pawar has in his mind. Pawar’s commitment to the survival of the MVA government is not known. Does he want to build up his war chest and then dump this government in favour of mid-term polls with the hopes of installing a NCP chief minister? Or does he wants this coalition to last for multiple assembly terms? We would probably know once those events play out.
- Sharad Pawar still has the the onerous task of deciding his political successor. Ajit Pawar walking out and forming the short-lived government with the BJP seemed to have settled this question. But Ajit dramatically resigned and came back into the party. Ajit’s mannerism now suggest that Pawar had to literally beg Ajit to come back prevent the NCP from splitting. Hence, the succession battle is far from over and Pawar has very few years of his political career in which to settle this question.
- Devendra Fadnavis: Devendra Fadnavis hold two records which are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. He became the first CM after Late Vasantrao Naik to complete a full five-year term as CM in Maharashtra. None of the other CMs in between were able to do that. But he also holds the infamous record of being the CM for the shortest tenure in the state (80 hours). This fiasco of forming the government with Ajit Pawar has dented the sympathy Fadnavis had across most parts of the state.
- However, Fadnavis now has to look towards the future instead of thinking about the stolen mandate of the recent past. Fadnavis has been elected as the Leader Of Opposition Party (LoP) in the assembly. His first few interventions have shown that the MVA government would have no slack from the opposition. Fadnavis as a leader of the opposition party with 105 MLAs would provide a formidable challenge to the ruling benches. His selection as LoP shows that Fadnavis has not lost the favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
- Fadnavis has made his intentions quite clear in his last few tweets. With the MVA government likely to be heavily tilted towards Mumbai-Thane-Konkan and Western Maharashtra regions, Fadnavis would raise the questions of neglect of North Maharashtra (Khandesh), Marathwada and Vidarbha in the assembly. These three regions constitute roughly half the seats in the Maharashtra assembly. Also Fadnavis would raise strong voice against the MVA government’s moves to stall infra projects in cities and across the state. The Metro 3 Aarey yard construction has been put on hold and a review ordered. Also the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi mahamarg (express way) and Marathwada watergrid projects are in danger of being stalled or scrapped, as the new government scrambles to collect funds to fulfill their farm loan waiver scheme.
- Despite having lost power, Fadnavis’s position as the number one in the state BJP has remained intact. The MVA government’s actions and development agenda will be compared to his work of the last five years. If the MVA government cannot move beyind populist measures and fails to deliver on infra development, the public sympathy will automatically be with Fadnavis. The public will rue losing a CM who was passionate about urban infra connectivity projects and drinking water projects in drought hit areas. An unpopular MVA government allows the BJP to poach the disgruntled MLAs after about 18 months, in a Karnataka style operation. The BJP could also force a mid-term poll and could gain a simple majority of their own. Such an outcome would immensely benefit to Devendra Fadnavis’s future Prime Minister ambitions.
- Ajit Pawar: Ajit is the most curious case among all the politicians being discussed here. Ajit Pawar’s actions in the last 10 days have been the cause of much curiosity among political watchers and experts.
- Ajit was lobbying for a 2.5 year term CM post for the NCP ever since the negotitations started with the Shiv Sena. Obviously Ajit was seeing an opportunity to fulfill his old ambition of becoming the CM. Uncle Sharad Pawar however was not excited about this eventuality, as he feared that Ajit would emerge victorious in the succession battle against his daughter Supriya. Ajit Pawar kept throwing tantrums in the meetings with the NCP and the Sena and kept delaying the negotiations by making impractical demands.
- Just when it seemed like the deal was sealed for the MVA, Ajit Pawar defected to the BJP and formed the government in a midnight coup. He presented the letter of signature of the 54 MLAs of the NCP legislative assembly leader. It seemed that he wanted to do a coup d’etat on his uncle and become the prime leader of the NCP. However the senior Pawar put up a strong fight and won back the MLAs who could have sided with Ajit. However, Ajit was never removed from the party and many NCP leaders continued to meet and persuade him to return. Sharad Pawar wanted to avoid the scenario of MLAs facing the dillema of voting for the party or for Ajit. Many of these MLAs are personally obliged to Ajit dada, who had personally helped them in politics.
- In the end it seems Sharad Pawar emotionally begged Ajit to not hurt him at such an advanced age and come back, through Sadanand Sule (Supriya’s husband) and Pratibha Pawar (Sharad Pawar’s wife). Ajit Pawar withdrew and walked back to the NCP. It was expected that he would be sidelined in the party and not even given a ministry. However, there are source based news that Ajit dada is the front runner for Dy CM post. Ajit’s mannerisms indicate as if his coup and subsequent return to the NCP never happened. He seems to have some kind of hold on his uncle. Also he seems to be assured about support from bulk of the NCP MLAs.
- Ajit’s relations with the BJP leaders in the coming days would also be a matter of interest and keenly watched by all. The BJP did not criticize Ajit Pawar after he dumped them and brought down the 80 hour government. The possibility of a covert understanding between Ajit and the BJP exists. Hence, Ajit Pawar’s moves will be very important to undertstand his future direction.
- Supriya Sule: The sudden increase in public relations by Supriya Sule and the fawning over her by the national/ Marathi media channels, cannot be missed by any serious political watcher. She was seen greeting every MLA in the vidhan bhavan on the day of MLA oath taking. She even embraced Ajit Pawar as he walked in to the vidhan bhavan.
- Supriya Sule has always been a Lutyens elite and despite her attempts to be seen as a ground level leader, she has no standing as compared to cousin Ajit in this regard. While Ajit has always been a hard worker and accessible to party cadre and citizens, Supriya can at best be described as a much imporved version of Rahul Gandhi. Of course she has the political intellegence and the gift of the gab which Rahul Gandhi lags. She has built up a base in Baramati and Pune rural districts, but a popularity contest today between her and cousin Ajit would put her in a distant second position.
- She faces a big handicap vis-à-vis Ajit. Rural Maharashtra especially Western Maharashtra is feudal in nature and accepting the leadership of a woman does not come naturally to politicans in this region. Especially so for political leaders and cadre belonging to the Maratha caste (which form the bulk of the NCP support base). It’s no easy to change this situation overnight, but Supriya has to keep trying hard.
- She sensed the opportunity to improve her standing when Ajit returned back to the NCP after a failed coup. Expect to see more puff pieces on Supriya Sule in the national and Marathi media in the coming days. However, it seems Ajit has returned back and has immediately got back into his groove. Supriya’s father could neither expel him (Senior Pawar won’t have tried to get him back in the first place) nor could sideline him beyond a point. Last thing that’s needed is a sympathy within the cadre for Ajit. In a scenario where the senior Pawar may retire from the political arena in the next few years, Supriya stands lesser chance as compared to Ajit. Her moves to improve her standing within the party and state/ national politics need to be watched in the coming months.
- Raj Thackeray: Raj’s fortunes have changed dramatically in the last one month. Having being thrown to the sidelines with just one MLA, the sudden move to Uddhav to align with the Congress and NCP; has given a lifeline to Raj.
- The Sena MLAs, leaders and cadre would gladly follow Uddhav’s command of forming a government with the Congress and NCP, but a lot of Sena voters are not so glad. They have been anti-Congress for the last 30 years and hence vote loyally for the Sena. Many of these urban voters looking to switch, still see the BJP as a non Marathi party. They do not have such reservations about the MNS. Such signs of anti-incumbency against the Sena was observed in this assembly election. MNS gained a lot of votes in seats like Dadar, Bhandup and Thane. The Sena sailed through in these seats with the BJP support. However such voter movement towards the MNS is likely to improve.
- Marathi voters in Mumbai are divided across class lines. Higher percentage of graduates or people with higher per capita income (among Marathis) vote for the BJP. The Sena and the MNS mainly get Marathi votes from the chawls or slums, especilly among the lesser educated and those having a lower per capita income (except in strongholds like Dadar where even the rich vote for Sena or MNS). These spoils will be shared between the BJP and the MNS, with MNS expected to gain more.
- However to make actual gains from the present situation, Raj Thackeray would have to change his lifecycle and become more involved in everyday politics. He cannot awaken on the eve of elections and win expect to do well with half a dozen speeches. If Raj shows situation awareness, he may covertly tango with the BJP to cause damage to the Sena. Opportunities like these come very rarely in a politician’s career. Can Raj grab the opportunity and make most of it remains to be seen?
In conclusion, these six political personalities are the ones who would decide the future trends in Maharashtra politics. Congress is a part player in this government and hence no one from that party features in this list. Congress does have a veto power but the decision lies in the hands of Sonia Gandhi and not of the state leaders. Also other leaders within the BJP, Sena and NCP don’t yet have a bigger profile as of now. So lets enjoy the Maharashtra version of the “Game of Thrones” over the coming 12-18 months.