Maha power and party: Walking the tightrope
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, with each passing day, seems to be perfecting the art of the tightrope walk. Over the past five years, there were many occasions when he proved he could have his cake and eat it too – the Shiv Sena was supporting the government of Devendra Fadnavis, but at the same time occupying the Opposition space that the Congress and NCP were incapable of taking over after having been voted out of a 15-year stint in power. That audacious strategy helped his party keep its trust with its voters and miraculously brought them to lead the government in Maharashtra.
I notice now that Fadnavis, who before the polls had been sure the Shiv Sena would have no choice but to play second fiddle to the BJP, seems unable to reconcile with the fact that Thackeray both outwitted and outsmarted him in the power stakes. “Usually no one will admit to being insulted, but I am openly stating that I was willing to talk to him before the government formation, but he never accepted my calls or even responded to the messengers I sent across to him,” Fadnavis said recently. “Through all that I never thought they would come together with the Congress they were always opposed to.”
Fadnavis gives away not just his lack of political acumen, but also a missing sense of history with that statement. He took the Shiv Sena for granted, not just once but twice, first, believing the ally would meekly accept its secondary status and then that it would have no choice but to accept the BJP’s terms for government formation. Fadnavis should have known that the Congress and Shiv Sena have had a history together and a common purpose in uniting covertly as they did in the 1960s to defeat the Communist domination of Bombay. Now they are being overt in taking on the BJP.
Historically, Hindutva was more a political convenience than an ideology to Uddhav’s father Bal Thackeray, who had no qualms in seeking support from the Indian Union Muslim League for the standing committee in the Bombay Municipal Corporation in the early 1970s after his party stormed the elections on a sharp anti-Muslim campaign on the Vande Mataram issue. Two decades later Thackeray had also called for a secular building like a school or a hospital for the poor at the disputed site in Ayodhya when he found Muslims still voted for his party despite the Sena’s role in the post-Babri riots in Mumbai. Of course, later he changed stance again and called for the disenfranchisement of Muslims when they shifted to the BJP led by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was then making overtures to the community. So with such dynamic changes of position on part of the Shiv Sena founder, how did Fadnavis expect his son and political heir to be any different?
After Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at his party’s Bharat Bachao rally in New Delhi last week said his name was Rahul Gandhi and not Rahul Savarkar, the BJP and Fadnavis were hoping to drive a wedge between the Shiv Sena and the Congress and bring down the government. Uddhav Thackeray in the past had said that anybody who did not accept Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as a ‘Veer’ (brave) deserved to be beaten up and here was Rahul drawing attention to the not very brave act of Savarkar in writing mercy petitions to the British to release him from prison in the Andamans.
I must admit even I thought that that would put Uddhav in a bind. But within 24 hours, the CM squashed any attempt at using that statement to bring down his government by, firstly, roundly disapproving of Gandhi’s comment and then pacifying his new-found ally by stating that the two parties had different ideological positions that they had to stick by and that such ideological conflicts were likely to occur even in the future.
Even over the Citizenship Amendment Act, his government has taken a nuanced position with home minister Eknath Shinde stating no Maharashtra resident will be discriminated against and Uddhav himself stating that CAA will not be implemented in Maharashtra unless the questions raised by his party over some of its provisions were clarified. This, after voting it in the Lok Sabha and walking out in the Rajya Sabha.
Call it dissembling, hypocrisy or even power-driven decisions. But these are among the finest balancing acts in recent Indian politics and I am truly impressed.