Amid COVID-19, political sweepstakes turn intense in Maharashtra

Devendra Fadanavis, the outgoing BJP chief minister has also been taking pot shots at Thackery’s “inept” handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Mahrashtra
Maharashtra leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis, Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, NCP Chief Sharad Pawar, Maharshtra CM Uddhav Thackeray File photo: PTI

Politics in Maharashtra is on the boil once again. The Shiv Sena-led NCP-Congress alliance is being shaken up at a time when Maharashtra is in the midst of a raging pandemic with the highest number of positive cases in the country.

The political temperature went high on Monday (May 25) evening when Governor Bhaghat Singh Koshiyari met NCP Supremo Sharad Pawar. Following this, Sharad Pawar had a 90-minute one-to-one discussion with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackery. Sharad Pawar had said the ruling coalition was safe and there was no threat to it. “Fadnavis is getting impatient,” Pawar told NDTV, implying that Devendra Fadnavis, the former chief minister and leader of BJP was keen to regain his post by toppling the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) or Grand Alliance government of the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress. “But there is no threat to the Maharashtra government. All MLAs are with us,” Pawar said. There have been reports of the BJP launching its famed Operation Lotus to break coalition government, as it had done in Karnataka last year, wherein disgruntled MLAs of the ruling coalition partners would be wooed away to reduce the alliance to a minority.

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The right-wing media has been excited over the development. Zee Television on its prime time news yesterday, citing BJP leader Narayan Rane’s meeting with Governor Koshiyari as an important political development, suggested that anything could happen in state politics.

One of its reporters commented that in Maharashtra “what you see is not what you get, it could be something altogether different.” The reference was to Sharad Pawar with a suggestion that he could disturb the current arrangement. This is because as a veteran politician he could read the tea leaves much earlier than anyone else.

The fact that Sharad Pawar went to Matoshree, the official residence of the Sena chief, was a significant indicator for the channel. It pointed out that this was for the first time since Sena chief took over the reins of the government, Pawar visited him at his residence.

Rane in his meeting with the Governor had demanded the dismissal of the Thackery government saying that it had failed to handle the COVID-19 crisis. The allegation was that he could not manage the migrants and this resulted in pandemic getting out of control.

RELATED NEWS: Pawar blames ‘impatient’ Fadnavis on alliance ‘rift’; Rahul doesn’t help

Shiv Sena MP and party spokesperson Sanjay Raut confirmed the meeting between Thackery and Pawar, but refused to disclose what transpired. He did say that the opposition (BJP) was spreading rumours. There was no threat to the government or the coalition. Sharad Pawar had called for opening up the lockdown for the resumption of economic activities. Thackery, on the other hand, was in favour of continued strict measures to control the pandemic.

A comment on the ABP website had speculated that Sharad Pawar was indulging in back seat driving. Though as a four time chief minister he had evinced no interest in taking over the mantle this time in reality he was calling the shots, the report said. His tweets make it clear that they were not just “directive but instructions” to the state government, the comment said.

Devendra Fadanavis, the outgoing BJP chief minister has also been taking potshots at Thackery’s “inept” handling of the COVID-19 crisis. While the pressure is gaining from the Opposition, Thackery too has been hitting back at the Centre saying it should do more in the form of financial aid.

The right-wing commentators harbour a perception that BJP, which is the single largest party with 105 seats in the state assembly, has the real mandate, and should have been in power, though they did not have the requisite majority.

Regrettably for the BJP, its pre-poll alliance partner Shiv Sena won 56 seats and if they stayed together they could have easily formed the government, in a house of 288, but Sena chose to ditch the BJP. This was unthinkable for the BJP, but the biggest shock for them was when Shiv Sena chose to ally with NCP (54) and seek the support of Congress party which has just 44 seats.

Since the formation of this “unnatural alliance,” the BJP and its supporters have been predicting that the government would not last long. They cite a similar situation that developed in Karnataka. There too Congress had propped up JD(S) to keep BJP out of power. But the coalition collapsed, as many ruling party MLAs including those from Congress, had decided to switch sides. The BJP was accused of horse-trading, but ultimately the discredited MLAs got re-elected and some of them are now in the state cabinet.

In Maharashtra political sweepstakes, the NCP is like the proverbial joker in the pack. A strong perception of Pawar and his party is that it could ally with anyone, as long as it helps NCP stay in power.

In November 2019, a perception was built that Pawar would ultimately ditch Congress and go with BJP-Sena alliance. Also the fact that Congress could never ally with Sena. Pawar surprised everybody by deciding to stick with the Congress alliance. But the real shock was the decision of Congress party to extend support to its arch political rival Sena. The two parties have never seen eye-to-eye and their ideologies are diametrically opposite to each another.

RELATED NEWS: Maharashtra government strong, says Raut amid rumours of rift

Political observers say that the time is now ripe for another Operation Kamala. The term gained currency in Karnataka when MLAs started switching sides from the ruling Coalition to BJP. After several iterations, Operation Kamala succeeded in the state.

A similar thing was predicted for Madhya Pradesh and Kamal Nath government fell as Jyotiraditya Scindia decided to walk out of his party to join the BJP. In the initial stages, Congress leaders dismissed the evolving crisis and said that BJP needs a large chunk of seats, which will not be possible in the state. It did not help the Congress party to remain in a state of denial.

The beginning of lockdown due to COVID-19 was marked by the fall of Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, perhaps the end of lockdown would be marked by the fall of Maharashtra government”, says Mr R Rajagopalan, a veteran political observer.

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