'Can we slip through the cracks in the alliance and use the situation to our advantage?'
Radhika Ramaseshan reports.
On a constant lookout for controversies and issues to frustrate Maharashtra's Maha Vikas Aghadi government, the Bharatiya Janata Party awaits the assembly speaker's election (in case circumstances necessitate one) to 'expose' the 'cracks' in the coalition and convert the occasion into a trial of strength for Chief Minister and Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray.
The speaker's post, held by Congressman Nana Patole, was vacated after he was appointed the Maharashtra Congress party president.
Although on paper, the MVA outnumbers the BJP -- it has 169 members in the 288-member legislature, while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has 114 -- the Sena and its partners, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, haven't zeroed in on a candidate.
The Budget session in March was conducted without a presiding officer, giving the BJP another handle to corner the government.
The Congress was disinclined to accept the post again, although Patole was keen to instate Nitin Raut, the energy minister, as speaker and take his ministerial portfolio, a political source in Mumbai said.
NCP President Sharad Pawar made it clear that he was unhappy with the Congress's unilateral decision to get the incumbent speaker to quit without a backup plan.
"The fact that the MVA is dawdling on this crucial post shows all is not well. The question is, can we slip through the cracks in the alliance and use the situation to our advantage?" asks a state BJP leader.
Maharashtra BJP President Chandrakant Patil believed that rather than gerrymander the legislature's numbers -- despite the BJP being the single-largest party -- the party should concentrate on winning every foreseeable election and recover its ground strength.
A reason why he thought the assembly by-election in Pandharpur on April 17 was "significant".
"Elections are the only test for a party which is in the Opposition. The NCP held this seat but we must try and wrest it. It will be a fillip to our workers," Patil says.
The BJP is not short of issues that tumble in almost daily as the rot gets deeper in Maharashtra's political system. "The system has got badly corroded because each MVA constituent lives for itself," a senior Maharashtra BJP leader says.
The latest controversy to burn the government was the fallout of the 'discovery' of an SUV parked near businessman Mukesh Ambani's South Mumbai home.
One thing led to another in a dizzying sequence of events, marked by the murder of Mansukh Hiren, a Thane businessman and owner of the incriminating Scorpio, the arrest of his 'friend' Sachin Waze, a police officer who was allegedly close to Thackeray, and the transfer of the Mumbai police commissioner, Parambir Singh.
As the National Investigation Agency and other central agencies began probing the occurrences, Singh turned an approver and accused the home minister, Anil Deshmukh, of directing police officers to extort Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) each month from the business community. Deshmukh is from the NCP.
"Waze is a stone around the MVA's neck," says Maharashtra BJP Vice-President Madhav Bhandari. "But every government department has one or more Wazes. We will come out with documentary evidence. The police are demoralised, nobody wants to take responsibility and the Nanded incident is the result of this chaos."
On March 30, Sikh youths breached the gates of a gurdwara at Nanded after they were denied permission to celebrate Hola Mohalla because of Covid and attacked the cops on duty, killing four.
However, where the BJP might have dubbed such episodes as manifestations of 'mafia-and-jungle raj' in the past, the Maharashtra contingent was uncharacteristically reticent. A source said: "We are waiting for people to react. People are preoccupied with battling COVID-19. It will be incongruous to agitate on the streets right now."
Even in a scenario that didn't favour staging political spectacles of the sort the BJP was used to, the party toted 'victories' to its credit.
"But for the united show we put up, Rathod would never have stepped down," claims Ashish Shelar, the BJP's Bandra West MLA. Sanjay Rathod is a former Sena forest minister accused of links with a 'TikTok star, Pooja Chavan.
On February 8, Pooja fell to her death from a building in an alleged suicide attempt but her photos, audio and video clips with Rathod went viral shortly thereafter.
When the BJP demanded his resignation, he decamped and surfaced two weeks later at a temple in Digras, his constituency in Yavatmal district, thronged by supporters.
The show of strength amid a raging pandemic in the district was disapproved of by Thackeray who summoned Rathod and berated him. He was asked to quit just before the Budget session began on March 1 because the BJP announced they would otherwise not allow the assembly to function.
Thackeray was reluctant to sack Rathod because he had emerged as a leader of the powerful Banjara community in Vidarbha, traditionally a BJP stronghold.
Next, the BJP claimed it 'forced' the government to end its drive to disconnect the power connections of farmers who defaulted on clearing their dues.
"Instead of giving peasants relief through bill waiver, the MVA resorted to this cruel measure. We decided to court arrest and fill the jails but the government gave in," says Jamner MLA Girish Mahajan, who was part of planning the protests.
The crucial test of the BJP's ground strength will be reflected in the elections to the municipalities of Navi Mumbai, Vasai Virar, Kalyan-Dombivli, Kolhapur, and Aurangabad in the next few months, before the big battle for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in early 2022.