The term of the Maharashtra Assembly ends in three days yet the BJP-Shiv Sena wrangling over chief minister’s post is far from over. The Shiv Sena is eager to form the next government in Maharashtra with or without the BJP, provided it gets its leader (read Aaditya Thackeray) as chief minister for the full term or at least half of it. That the BJP is not ready to part with the chief ministerial position makes the role of Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the Congress crucial.
The NCP-Congress contested election against the BJP-led alliance in Maharashtra. The BJP was the main target of their attack during election campaign. The Shiv Sena has reached out to the NCP and through its leader Sharad Pawar it has also reached out to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
This presents a golden opportunity, especially to the Congress to snatch yet another state from the BJP. But Sonia Gandhi was, apparently, extremely hesitant in supporting a government led by the Shiv Sena. Sharad Pawar was in Delhi recently to discuss Maharashtra’s political stalemate with Sonia Gandhi. The meeting remained inconclusive but it definitely built a bridge between the Shiv Sena and the Congress.
The Congress’s hesitation is the result of a combination of factors including what happened in Karnataka over one year after government formation in May 2018. The BJP was the single-largest party in Karnataka like in Maharashtra but failed to muster majority to run a government.
The Congress, in what appeared a smart political move, announced unconditional support to the Janata Dal (Secular) just to keep the BJP out of power. The resultant government was never in control as constituents JDS and the Congress leaders kept fighting all the while. The BJP returned in 13 months on account of defections in both the JDS and the Congress.
Karnataka is fresh in the memory of the Congress leadership, currently dominated by the old guard, which was reportedly unhappy with the decisions taken by the party under Rahul Gandhi in the southern state. This was said to be the reason why the Congress did not latch up the opportunity that the hung assembly in Haryana presented to it. The old guard was reluctant. The BJP managed to win over both kingmakers Gopal Kanda and Dushyant Chautala.
Secondly, the Congress and the NCP are not yet sure about the real motive of the Shiv Sena in approaching them for government formation. The Shiv Sena has not snapped its ties with the BJP. The bickering is being seen as one-upmanship between the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
It is still widely believed that the Shiv Sena would settle for an agreement with the BJP in a give-and-take pact for power-sharing. This gains currency from reports about the Shiv Sena approaching the RSS and demanding Union minister Nitin Gadkari as an interlocutor.
Thirdly, the ideology of the Shiv Sena that is based on hardline Hindutva is another major obstacle. The Shiv Sena is the only ally of the BJP that vouches for Hindutva politics. All others including the JD(U) of Nitish Kumar, the LJP of Ram Vilas Paswan and even the Shiromani Akali Dal of the Badals in Punjab don’t support the Hindutva brand of politics.
The Congress’s main plank of politics, since the rise of the BJP, has been staunch opposition to Hindutva politics. If the Congress sides with the Shiv Sena either as a partner in the government or in extending outside support to a Shiv Sena-NCP government it would be shooting itself in the foot.
At a time, when the Congress sees consolidation of Hindutva vote in favour of the BJP, supporting a more hardliner Hindutva party will give the BJP fresh salvos to fire at it over pseudo-secularism.
The Congress has recently seen a little consolidation of Muslim votes in Hindi heartland states and Karnataka last year, and Haryana and Maharashtra this year. Thus the party is unlikely to risk this kind of fresh consolidation of votes in its favour.
Sharad Pawar, on his part, has little more freedom to pick his side. He can always play the Mahratha or “Maharashtra stability” card for supporting either the Shiv Sena or the BJP, if it comes to that stage. There has been no talk in public about BJP-NCP alliance, though.
Without the Congress, on the other hand, the NCP and Shiv Sena don’t add up to the required number of 145 in 288-member Maharashtra Assembly. Sharad Pawar clearly knows such an exercise would only be futile.
There cannot be an alternative non-BJP government in Maharashtra until the Congress comes on board in some capacity. Sonia Gandhi has a tough choice to make lose Maharashtra to the BJP or lose secular votes. Sharad Pawar too faces the same paradoxical question but with a lesser degree of worry. This explains why in his latest press conference on Wednesday, Sharad Pawar reiterated that BJP-Shiv Sena should respect mandate and form government in Maharashtra.