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Lessons for BJP from mishandling Maharashtra

By N Sathiya Moorthy
November 28, 2019 20:00 IST
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By its own behaviour and perceived high-handedness, the BJP has lost the confidence of its allies, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Uddhav Thackeray, Amit Shah and Devendra Fadnavis in happier times. Photograph: Shirish Shete / PTI Photo

There is a theory on democratic polity, which is more seen at work on the ground than in academics: where the political Opposition is weak, inherent divisions within the ruling dispensation would either appear or would come out in the open.

If the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party strategists at the Centre had known it and thought of it, they had ensured that it did not happen at their level. Ergo, either they did not know, or did not care about the subterranean shifts in regional alliances.

In context, it you take the (erstwhile) Shiv Sena ally of the BJP in Maharashtra, that is one party that is ideologically tuned to the other, and the two have also worked cohesively for the longest possible time.


This should have meant that both knew and understood each other’s mood, methods and priorities better than any other. In reality, however, familiarity, rather than breeding greater respect, seems to have only bred greater contempt.

In India, it all had happened in 1969-71, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had counted on smaller parties like the two Communist outfits and the DMK, for parliamentary support after the 1969 ‘vertical split’ in her Congress.

The two allies took their pound of flesh until elections 1971, which gave Mrs Gandhi a massive majority in the Lok Sabha. Subsequent months saw the CPM getting shunted to the Opposition and the CPI drifting even more towards Mrs Gandhi. The DMK split a year later in 1972, with charismatic star-politician M G Ramachandran forming the more successful AIADMK.

It happened again during the infamous government of Prime Minister Charan Singh, who ruled with ‘external support’ from the Congress and quit without facing a trust vote in the Lok Sabha, as the other party withdrew support as fast as it gave the same.

Then as now, people remember only the Congress and Indira Gandhi as the ‘Opposition’ that brought down the Charan Singh government. They did not -- and do not -- remember that there was a Leader of  the Opposition in the Lok Sabha through all this, as the Janata Party had elected Jagjivan Ram to the post after the exit of the Morarji Desai ministry, in which the other two were deputy PMs.

Despite the BJP under predecessor A B Vajpayee-L K Advani duo too were known to have told the Sena’s Thackerays a few home truths to their face, and were also believed to have hobnobbed with the Nationalist Congress Party in their time, they had purchased peace by at the last turn meeting the other half way, or more than half way.

The truce or peace stayed until the next elections, and there was no apprehension in the mind of the Shiv Sena that they would be targeted soon.

One reason possibly was that the BJP under Vajpayee and Advani did not have the numbers, with the result they had to put on the ‘backburner, not only controversial ideological issues’ (Chennai Declaration 1998) but also subsume over-ambitious projects to eat into the ally, open like the Shiv Sena or tentative like the TDP.

This is also the possible distinction from the past that the current BJP leadership at the Centre seems to have overlooked, if at all they have had the time and inclination to revisit the party’s past behaviour with allies of decades.

Running rough-shod over the allies, or seemingly being so, has characterised the Modi-Shah duo almost from the start. Unlike under the earlier duo leadership, the Modi-Shah combo only took the party from strength to strength, and with that from ambition to over-ambition.

In their time, the Vajpayee-Advani duo did actually ride-rough shod of the kind, which was among the reasons for Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK walking out of the BJP-NDA at the Centre.

Before and after this episode, the BJP leadership would always sound seemingly accommodative and obliging the allies (whom they wanted more than possibly the other way), leaving it to their non-party backroom negotiators to do the tough talking when allies acted pricey.

The present BJP leadership seems to have no faith in such an approach and strategy to deal with allies. More so, some at the top also gave the impression -- or, seemingly so -- especially after elections- 2019 that the party could do without allies in future.

If there was any strategy, went the argument, it was to neutralise the allies, after having nearly decimated the legitimate Opposition.

If such a proposition, especially when viewed from the ground, may have upset the Sena leadership at all levels, the abrogation of Article 370 and the Supreme Court verdict in the ‘Ayodhya case’ might have made them feel endangered, what with the Modi government and the Shah leadership of the BJP having captured the voter’s imagination across the nation, more than ever.

The conclusion was simple. If aligned with the BJP now, possibly there won’t be any Shiv Sena in the future -- if not rendered irrelevant in political and electoral terms, at least in the party’s effectiveness and more so in terms of numbers.

The Sena is also not the party to forget the way Union minister Suresh Prabhu crossed over to the BJP and continued to remain where he had otherwise belonged -- and the party not being able to do anything about it when it all happened.

It might have guessed what awaited the party if it continued to play second fiddle to the national ally, after having provided political space and electoral relevance to the other, when much of the rest of the nation’s polity, including regional entities, had treated the BJP as a politico-electoral outcast of sorts.

If it saw attempts to elbow it out sooner than later, the Sena has acted precisely the way any other party in its place would have done -- going beyond the perceived aggression and practised assertion of the past decades.

The lesson for the BJP is obvious, yet it is worth re-stating. By its own behaviour and perceived high-handedness, the party has lost the confidence of its allies, even when as a leader Prime Minister Modi continues to rule the roost.

The party just cannot risk the latter eternally for benefits elsewhere. In her time, Indira Gandhi let her Congress resort to such tactics, and paid a heavy price, as the post-Emergency elections of 1977 showed.

Then again the Opposition was divided and weak, and yet after the 1971 polls that she swept, the mistakes that her party and government committed, starting with the inculcation of the ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’ type of floor-crossing, which is what Ajit Pawar has done for the BJP.

In Sharad Pawar, the BJP duo may have met their match, but that is small consolation, as the larger issue of giving some, if not much, credence and credibility to the defeatist Congress, with limited acceptance by the ‘Hindutva’ fellow-traveller in the Shiv Sena, needs a medium and long-term assessment.

Age and health permitting, if Pawar takes on the Maharashtra challenge nationwide and becomes the focus of Opposition unity and expansion, just now it may now have more purchase than a week earlier.

It is possibly the kind of Opposition consolidation and revival that Indira Gandhi facilitated in the Gujarat assembly polls of June 12, 1975, whose impact and effect was lost to the Allahabad high court verdict disqualifying her the same day -- and the subsequent proclamation of Emergency less than a fortnight later. 

Then, as now, the economy was not robust, and the Centre was seen as meddling and meandering on this score, purposeless and directionless.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Initiative.

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