In Maharashtra, ‘master strategist’ Amit Shah hits his first bump in the road

Shah swaggered through many state polls in the last five years, but this one has thrown him off the rails.

ByVrinda Gopinath
In Maharashtra, ‘master strategist’ Amit Shah hits his first bump in the road
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Has the self-effacing Marathi Manoos delivered the first forceful punch at the imperious Gujarati Sher Shah in the ongoing political bout playing out in Maharashtra? The Bharatiya Janata Party president and all-powerful and omnipotent Home Minister, Amit Shah has swaggered through many state elections in the last five years. Yet it’s the just-concluded Maharashtra state Assembly poll that seems to have thrown him off the rails.

For the first time since he strode on the national stage as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most trusted aide and strategist, blazing fire and brimstone in full throttle, leaving his party overawed and the media gushing — Shah has met his nemesis with his volatile and on-and-off ally, the Shiv Sena. 

The BJP and Sena have had a mercurial relationship, despite the fact that both share the same Hindutva ideology and even engage in competitive hyper-nationalism and zealotry. This time, the BJP’s gritty and defiant ally has dug its heels in the ground, demanding that the chief minister’s post be shared between the two parties for 2.5 years each. It’s also asked for an equal division of portfolios, both big and small. According to the Sena, this was a pre-poll promise made by Shah to Uddhav Thackeray, the present Sena chief, though the BJP denies any such undertaking. 

The clash came after BJP-Sena alliance failed to get the required majority in the state election when the results were announced on October 24.In the 288-member Assembly, the BJP won 105 seats, the Sena 56. Rivals Nationalist Congress Party got 54 seats, Congress 44 seats, and others three.

Within hours of the announcement of the results, banners erupted on Mumbai streets hailing the Sena heir apparent, Aditya Thackeray — the first member of the Sena family to contest an election and win — as the alliance’s new chief minister. Then, banners billowed outside Matoshree, the house of Sena founder Bal Thackeray, calling for party chief Uddhav Thackeray to be the new chief minister. As of now, the governor had asked the Sena to stake its claim, but the Sena’s talks with both the NCP and Congress yielded no fruit. The NCP has now been given time to express “willingness and ability to form government”. 

So, how did Shah come to a point of possibly losing a state as big as Maharashtra when he has managed to cobble together BJP governments in even more trickier and troublesome coalitions? From Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and later in Karnataka and Haryana — Shah used every trick and ruse to lure and smash rival parties to gather a majority to form BJP-led governments in the states. 

He’s been hailed as a modern-day Chanakya by a worshipful media and a wonderstruck party. As breathless journalists and commentators cheered on, Shah trampled and stomped through governments, throwing all constitutional propriety, correctness and democratic morality to the winds. This even as rival parties appealed to the courts to challenge constitutional lapses.

Is it overconfidence and hauteur that has thrown Shah off track for the first time? Or is it pragmatism that speaks today, of refusing to make compromises with the Sena and bowing out for the time being, waiting for his moment to strike?

Since results were declared in Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray has said he will not accommodate the BJP anymore, after ceding seats in the Lok Sabha earlier this year and Assembly election last month. Meanwhile, Shah has studiously avoided meeting Thackeray. Instead, he’s sent the BJP’s chief minister-in-waiting, Devendra Fadnavis, for confabulations and consultations with the Sena.

But apart from the numbers game, it is the Sena’s crafty strategy of whipping up its credo of Marathi supremacy versus creeping Gujarati domination among probable allies which is underlining the no-to-President’s-rule chant, most notably with the NCP. The party has gone public about its abhorrence for the Gujarati Modi-Shah duo. Only a few days ago, NCP’s senior leader Nawab Malik was acerbic when he said, “The BJP wants to run Maharashtra through Modi and Shah from Delhi by pushing the state towards President’s rule. People will not tolerate this insult of Maharashtra.”

It is also significant that only a month before Maharashtra went to polls, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and his nephew Ajit Pawar, also a legislator, were served notices by the Enforcement Directorate, equivalent to a police FIR, in a money laundering case filed against them.

Herein lies the crux of the problem: The battle between dhokla (a Gujarati staple snack) and zunka (a Maharashtrian street food speciality promoted by the Sena). It’s been simmering for the last three decades since the BJP struck its alliance with the Sena in 1989. It reached boiling point five years ago, especially in the Maximum City of Mumbai which has a sizeable Gujarati and Jain (Shah’s community) population. 

The Sena has been suspicious of Modi using Gujarati asmita (pride) to appeal to voters in the state especially after becoming prime minister, and has hit out at the BJP (read Modi-Shah) in their attempts to woo industrialists from Mumbai to Gujarat as an investment destination.

In fact, in 2014, barely after Maharashtra went to vote in the Lok Sabha elections, the Sena mouthpiece Saamna had attacked Gujaratis, questioning their loyalty to the state. The Sena has looked askance as Gujaratis and Jains have taken over traditional Maharashtrian enclaves in south Mumbai — from Lower Parel to Girgaum to Marine Lines — to enforce strict vegetarianism amongst a traditional fish- and meat-eating community.  The Sena is not taking too kindly to the BJP’s predatory moves of building a Gujarati vote bank in the state.

Shah is feeling the reverberations in Haryana and Karnataka too. Deputy chief minister Dushyant Chautala extended the support of his party, the Jannayak Janata Party, to the BJP to form its government in Haryana. Now, Chautala is already demanding privileges, like the immediate setting up of the Haryana Teacher Eligibility Test examination centres within a radius of 50 kilometres. His father and grandfather were arrested in 2013 for taking bribes in the illegal recruitment of over 3000 teachers; his father Ajay Chautala has been lodged in Tihar Jail since.

Dushyant Chautala also got his father furlough for two weeks on the day he tied up with the BJP.  It remains to be seen what more the JJP demands in its common minimum programme with the BJP coalition government.

In Karnataka, the BJP wrested the government from the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance three months ago after its chief minister HD Kumarswamy lost the confidence vote on the floor of the House. In August, the resignation of 17 MLAs had brought the 14-month coalition government down, and the BJP moved in with BS Yeddyurappa as the new chief minister.

Shah was lauded as the brain behind the opportunist move. But to his horror, the former Speaker disqualified all 17 MLAs — 14 from the Congress and three from the JD(S) — and barred them from not only contesting elections till 2023, when the term of the present Assembly ends, but disqualified them on charges of defection.

The 17 MLAs have moved the Supreme Court to challenge their disqualification. But the matter is at a nail-biting finish. The 17 MLAs can fight the by-polls only if the apex court allows it. Fifteen by-polls have been scheduled for December 5 and the last date for filing nominations is November 18, while the Supreme Court will deliver its judgement on their disqualification on Wednesday, November 13. The MLAs’ counsel is pleading for further postponement of the by-polls. Simultaneously, the Congress has submitted a tape where Yeddiyurappa is purportedly saying the BJP is behind the fall of the Kumaraswamy government.

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will uphold the disqualification of the defected MLAs. If not, the BJP will have to win 15 seats in the by-polls to save the Yediyurappa government. 

In Goa, the BJP lured 10 out of the 15 Congress MLAs to form the government in early July after dumping its former allies, the Goa Forward Party, which had first supported the BJP to make the late Manohar Parrikar as chief minister a year ago. 

In the Sikkim Assembly, the BJP zoomed from zero to 10 after 10 MLAs from the Sikkim Democratic Front joined the BJP, making it the main Opposition party in the state. It remains to be seen how tenuous and stable these state governments will be. After all, they can be bought and sold to the highest bidder, going by past events.

 So, is Amit Shah banking on similar market forces to go in favour of the BJP in Maharashtra in the future? The sweepstakes are sky-high and the gamble is treacherous, but this round has gone against Shah and the BJP.   

It’s perhaps the first knock for the insuppressible Shah.

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