In those two years, the BJP has lost elections in two major states: Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Only a short while ago you would have been ridiculed if you questioned the complete political dominance in India of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its mesmerising leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the unthinkable seems to have started to happen: The BJP has started to decline and Modi is losing his earlier aura of invincibility. Here’s the evidence: Less than two years ago, 76 per cent of India’s total area and 69 per cent of its population was ruled by the BJP; today, its area is 37 per cent, and its population has shrunk to 45 per cent.
In those two years, the BJP has lost elections in two major states: Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Its latest setback has been Maharashtra, India’s richest state, largely because the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, is located there. Though the BJP got the largest number of seats of any party in the recent state election, this was much less than was expected and not sufficient to form the government. Out of desperation, it did something that it was to regret three days later. It reached out to a rival party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which it had roundly castigated in the past, and allied with it, on the assurance that the NCP would bring in enough legislators to cobble together a majority to form the government. Based on that assurance, the Maharashtra Governor (a BJP-appointed man) swore in Devendra Fadnavis as the new chief minister, and Ajit Pawar, the ‘rebel’ leader of the NCP, as the deputy chief minister.
It turned out to be the shortest-lived state government in Indian history. Three days later, Ajit Pawar’s supporters abandoned him. Fadnavis had no option other than to submit his resignation, with Ajit Pawar following him soon after. It was a humiliating embarrassment for the BJP. But it was also a debacle for Ajit Pawar, the nephew of Sharad Pawar, a formidable force in the state for almost half a century. Ajit had, in effect, revolted against his uncle, expecting virtually all the NCP members to follow him (Ajit).
But they let him down. The elder Pawar’s hold over them proved too strong. After Ajit’s failed revolt, he should have been expelled from the NCP. However, it now looks as if he will be ‘rehabilitated’ and given a senior position in the new government. And what does one make of this new government? It’s a highly unlikely mélange – the Shiv Sena, the NCP, and the Congress – and the strangest of bed-fellows. The Shiv Sena which has always sworn by Hindutva, allied with a party, the Congress, that has constantly believed in ‘secularism’. Can the two co-exist?
Here, it is instructive to recount the Shiv Sena’s history. It was founded by a cartoonist, Bal Thackeray (oddly enough, he was named after the famous British writer, William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair) in the mid-1960s. He realised that he could never rival his great contemporary cartoonist, the incomparable R.K. Laxman, hence he turned to politics. He chose an opportune moment. There was a political vacuum in Maharashtra, particularly in Bombay, as it was then called. His call for ‘Maharashtrian pride’ resonated, especially among the working class. Many local jobs were being taken by the harder-working ‘outsiders’, mainly south Indians. Hence, the Shiv Sena’s initial drive was against them. Demands that a large percentage of private-sector and government jobs be reserved for ‘sons-of-the-soil’ date from around this time. Uddhav Thackeray, the new Shiv Sena chief minister, son of Bal Thackeray, has renewed the same demand, upping it to 80 per cent of jobs. The trouble is that little investment will be attracted to the state under such conditions. Entrepreneurs and business houses do not like being told that if they want to set up an enterprise, the large majority of the workers must be ‘locals’.
The other charge against the Shiv Sena is its anti-Muslim nature, which surfaced most virulently in the horrific communal riots of 1984 in Bhiwandi and then again in 1992-93, after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. In fact, Shiv Sena workers were in the mobs that destroyed the mosque. Uddhav is a more moderate figure than his father who liked to boast that he could shut down Bombay on his command and who admired Adolf Hitler. Also, among the newly appointed senior ministers in the state government is Chhagan Bhujbal, who has spent several months in prison on serious corruption charges. Ajit Pawar, too, has allegedly benefited in a massive irrigation scam, when he was the minister in charge. With such characters around him, will Uddhav Thackeray be able to lead a clean administration trusted by minorities who have been targeted in the past?
Meanwhile, the BJP has also not emerged from the Maharashtra mess smelling like roses. By trying to ally itself with the tainted Ajit Pawar, Modi’s anti-corruption platform has gone for a toss. Modi himself may not be associated with any major scams but his vow to clean up governance has certainly not been fulfilled five years after he came to power.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of the Khaleej Times