Darkness of the night is the preferred medium for the thieves to operate; the daylight dazzles and exposes them to risks. So, when the files and other communication moved back and forth between the PMO and the Rashtrapati Bhavan in the intervening night of 22/23 November and President Ramnath Kovind finally signed a decree revoking the President’s rule in Maharashtra in the wee hours, stage was set for unfolding of a sinister political plot in India’s financial capital. Within an hour, the country woke up to the announcement that Devendra Fadnavis was once again being sworn in as the Chief Minister and Ajit Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA, as his deputy!
This was akin to coming together of the north and south poles; the unthinkable combination – BJP and NCP – in the given political circumstances. It left political pundits confused and many started wondering if the Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar had joined the BJP camp. Already, Fadnavis’s attempts to cobble a government with his electoral ally the Shiv Sena had failed and even left between the two natural allies a trail of bitterness that is unlikely to evaporate in the near future. The Sena wanted a bigger share of power – possibly a chief ministerial berth – and the BJP was not ready to give in. BJP, with 105 seats in its kitty and yet 39 away from an absolute majority in the 288-member Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, eventually gave up its bid to power and also snapped its ties with the Sena that had won on 56 seats.
As they say, politics is the art of possibilities; the anti-BJP stance brought Sena closer to the other political alliance – NCP-Congress – that had won 100 seats. The three parties were working out the alliance to stake claim for government formation when Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari recommended the President’s rule even before the 24-hour deadline given by him to Shiv Sena to stake its claim had expired.
Fadnavis’s sudden swearing-in along with Ajit Pawar appeared to be a coup of sorts by the BJP till NCP supremo Sharad Pawar reiterated that his party was not with BJP and it was his nephew Ajit Pawar’s personal decision to join the BJP-led government.
How did Fadnavis manage numbers to convince Governor Koshyari to a reasonable level that he had adequate support for getting an invite to form the government?
As the events later were to prove, Ajit Pawar was acting as a lone wolf. With a number of investigations in multi-crore scams in cooperative banks and irrigation department of the State launched by the BJP against him and others, he was the soft target of the saffron party's leaders in Delhi. Now it may not be wrong to say that these cases were registered with an eye on the elections. The Fadnavis government was quickly sworn in almost complete secrecy with just one minister. With a friendly man in Raj Bhavan, BJP had calculated that 24 days allowance that Koshyari gave Fadnavis was enough time to lure more NCP leaders and possibly split the party.
Indian politics is not immune to the practice of horse-trading and sale of legislators. However, the brazen ways it is being done of late under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – the two Chanakyas of the BJP’s plans for getting a pan-India foothold by hook or by crook – remains unmatched by others. Earlier the party had managed to rope in legislators who had fought against them in Haryana to cobble a government without batting an eyelid or having moral pretensions. The same was all set to be repeated in Maharashtra till the Supreme Court intervened.
BJP’s murky plot of grabbing power in Maharashtra at any cost was exposed when within two days of Pawar’s joining the government as deputy chief minister, the anti-corruption bureau of the State closed the investigation into all cases against him.
BJP’s gamble with junior Pawar was a calculated one: the party’s dirty tricks department managers believed once in power, Fadnavis-Ajit combo would be able to get the support of other NCP legislators by hook or by crook. The lure of power would draw them into splitting the NCP and diminish the stature of the party’s founder Sharad Pawar. It was planning to rope in at least 36 of 56 NCP MLAs to evade disqualification under the anti-defection law.
Two things played out to axe BJP plan of power grab in Maharashtra: one the order of the Supreme Court for holding the floor test within 48 hours to ascertain the majority character of the Fadnavis government pre-empted its plans and second was the smart moves made by Pawar camp to rescue his MLAs from guest houses and resorts where they had been kept by the BJP for possible defection.
No wonder Ajit Pawar resigned within three days and Fadnavis followed it up with his own in the face of no possibility of engineering defection in Pawar’s party. It seems Pawar had obtained signatures of all MLAs on the pretext of marking their attendance that he finally presented to Koshyari as proof of their support.
The entire sordid drama raises a stink on BJP’s practice of manipulating democracy despite its claim of ushering in transparency and ending family rule. From the word go, BJP was brazenly violating tenets of ‘dharma’ and making it clear that all is fair in Indian politics and power grab. BJP’s arrogance of making it big with Modi and Hindutva wave was evident the way it failed to accommodate smaller yet significant partner Shiv Sena to form the government. Sena sources say that the party had even agreed for taking turns to lead the government, a coalition arrangement that had worked well in Jammu and Kashmir between Congress and PDP. Interestingly, BJP's brazen behaviour of first striking a coalition with its archrival PDP in J&K and then ditching it without enough reason remains one of the major breaches of coalition dharma in recent times.
BJP has very little chance of winning on its own in Maharashtra that sends the second-largest batch of members to Lok Sabha, hence picking a quarrel with Shiv Sena for a short term gain would eventually prove costly for it. Besides, as the party yearns to get a foothold in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and also in Bengal, yet developments in Maharashtra tend to diminish the credibility and dependence of the saffron party as a reliable coalition partner in difficult terrains.
The Maharashtra political drama has reached a stage where people may lose faith in democracy since their mandate can be easily tweaked by the powerful party. The events prior to swearing-in of the Shiv Sena-led coalition government in the state also do not add to the glory of the saffron party or the stature of its leaders.
Governor Koshyari’s role in this crucial situation when no political party had got a full mandate in the election has come under the scanner. The RSS veteran in Mumbai Raj Bhavan proved more loyal than the king not even bothering to pretend he was following the rules set out by the Supreme Court in the Bommai judgment and precedents set by president K R Narayanan. He played as an agent of the BJP, misused his powers to manipulate rules in favour of the party he once held a high position in.
The governor is supposed to play the role of a facilitator in government formation and not in allowing time for horse-trading. He should invite parties one by one, starting from the largest formation, and carefully check the veracity of their claim of support for government formation. In the case of Maharashtra, Koshyari did call the BJP, the largest party with 105 seats at first place. As it could not form the government and the next largest party Shiv Sena called by him sought time to firm up its arrangement with the NCP-Congress alliance for government formation. Uddhav Thackeray had asked Koshyari for a little more time. Instead of allowing him to come back with a firmed up proposal for government formation, Koshyari quickly recommended President’s Rule in the state.
Next round of manipulations happened in Delhi, probably after managing to wean away Ajit Pawar from NCP. Now it became clear that President’s rule imposed without exploring all possibilities of government formation by the anti-BJP parties was aimed at buying time for roping in NCP MLAs. Normally, a Presidential order comes on the recommendations of the Union cabinet. The Modi cabinet held no meeting prior to revocation of President’s rule in the Western State. In the case of Maharashtra, when it came to clearing the way for BJP government, this cardinal rule was kept in abeyance. Surprisingly, the President was made to sign the order by invoking a clause meant for emergencies and the extraordinary situation in which a cabinet recommendation can be done away with.
Was the government formation in Maharashtra an emergency that needed to be done with utmost secrecy?
The office of the President has never been dragged into such political machinations as was Kovind’s. With all his erudition and standing, the nation expected the President to at least ask questions to the BJP government and not be a party to the subversion of democracy to help the ruling party.(Published on 02nd December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 49)