Survival instinct of three parties
No matter how much Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray wishes to secularise his party, even admitting in the Maharashtra Assembly that they had made a mistake mixing religion with politics, their image is unlikely to change soon.
The BJP has already been needling Thackeray for weeks now for his association with the Congress. It was even rattled by the meeting of Thackeray, his son Aaditya and other leaders of the party with Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi last month. Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had even peeved that he had not expected the Congress to team up with the Shiv Sena, though the NCP was a different cup of tea and opportunistic in its alliances. The underlying note there was that the BJP could have formed an alliance with the NCP and thus managed to lead the government in Maharashtra.
But now it is the NCP which is stirring up the pot of controversy and causing the Shiv Sena much trouble in governance. It is in too much of a hurry to reinforce its pluralistic credentials and seize the narrative in government, thus upsetting the applecart. While Sharad Pawar himself is very circumspect, party spokesperson and minister for minority affairs Nawab Malik recently informed the Maharashtra legislative Council that the Maha Vikas Aghadi government was considering reintroducing a five per cent reservation for Muslims in schools, colleges and universities. Now a five per cent reservation for Muslims along with a 16 per cent reservation for Marathas was one of the highly publicised closing policies of the Prithviraj Chavan government in the state in 2014. The incoming BJP-Shiv Sena government formalised the Maratha reservation after much agitation, but quietly allowed the Muslim reservation bill to lapse in both houses of the legislature. The post-2014 atmosphere in the country was such that both the Congress-NCP and the Muslim community thought that discretion was the better part of valour and decided to refrain from raising a hue and cry over the issue. Now with a government in place again in the state, and the NCP the strongest component of this tripartite alliance, there is an overwhelming desire to regain the initiative and re-establish its secularist credentials which have been marred by comments like that from Fadnavis about its opportunism.
However, the saffron forces in the country are less opportunistic and more committed to their ideology, so did not hesitate in raising a ruckus about the issue. The first off the mark was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, calling into question minority appeasement by a government led by the Shiv Sena which prompted the party to swiftly deny that any move for Muslim reservation was under consideration by the government.
Now that is a classic dog whistle on both sides, turned rather on its head though. I suspect the government is playing hide and seek with the different parts of its electorate to keep both the saffron and secular sides happy. But then it also entails the risk of falling between two stools. While no response has come so far from the NCP, I wonder how the party will now cede ground or manage the contradiction. Under normal circumstances, such a tug-of-war should have put enough pressure on the two parties to collapse the government. But the government is not a normal one and it is not just the glue of power that keeps them together, but also the desire to keep the mighty BJP out of power. So it is very unlikely that if the contradictions over the Citizenship Amendment Act have not yet collapsed the government, a small and ordinary matter like reservation will. Uddhav Thackeray has been stepping carefully around the CAA, conditionally accepting the NPR and outright rejecting the NRC. At the start of this government’s term, the Sena had voted for the bill in the Lok Sabha and walked out in the Rajya Sabha.
However, the three parties knew very well before they came together the different directions they would be pulling in over the various issues. Yet survival was more visceral to the three than the small matter of ideological contradictions. The Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest prevails.