Maharashtra ends BJP monopoly over ‘Jai Shree Ram’ brand of politics

The BJP's expertise in making and breaking governments through defections has helped it change the political map of Goa, Karnataka and the northeast. Illustration: Eunice Dhivya

A man once woke up from sleep screaming and shouting. When asked what the ruckus was all about, he replied, a mouse just passed over his stomach.

But, those around him asked, it’s just a mouse, what’s the big deal?

The man screamed back: “Idiots, my stomach has now become a public street. Today a rat has crawled over it, what stops a tiger from using the same route tomorrow?”

If the joke didn’t make you laugh, it should at least make you understand the BJP’s biggest concern after the Maharashtra debacle. But, before we come to that, the context.

The BJP’s biggest contribution to Indian politics — apart from rising unemployment, the demonetisation fiasco and declining growth — is the Aaya Pawar, Gaya Pawar brand of politics. Its expertise in making and breaking governments through defections has helped it change the political map of Goa, Karnataka and the northeast.

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But, so far, the BJP had stolen people and parties from the opposition camp. Maharashtra is the first time the opposition has cracked the BJP chest and run away with its oldest ally — the Shiv Sena. The BJP’s top concern today, like that of the man in the joke, is what if it becomes a trend tomorrow and the party ends up being dumped, deceived and defeated by its other allies?

The Sena’s defection isn’t a small event. Apart from being its political partner, the Sena was also the BJP’s ideological ally, a loyal partner in its Hindutva project. Suddenly, the Hindutva party has become part of the secular group. The opposition will now argue that the BJP isn’t the sole claimant to the tag of the party of the Hindus. Simultaneously, the Shiv Sena will counter BJP’s nationalism spiel with louder slogans and chest-thumping about India and patriotism. The secular-Hindutva divide just got blurred, and the BJP’s monopoly over Jai Shree Ram and Vande Mataram brand of politics is gone.

It is amusing to watch Devendra Fadnavis attack the Sena for stealing the mandate in Maharashtra. Its only surviving ally in power, Nitish Kumar, would have had a few words to say on the art of contesting polls with X and forming the government with Y. Two years ago, Kumar had stolen the Bihar mandate in a similar fashion, after contesting the polls in alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav on an anti-BJP plank. Then, after cursing BJP throughout the poll campaign, he had ditched Yadav and formed a government overnight with the BJP, earning the sobriquet of ‘Paltu Chacha.’

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The Maharashtra drama has shattered the myth that governments can be made and broken by Amit Shah at free will with the help of the deep state — the investigating agencies that keep dossiers on rivals for prompt and necessary action demanded by their lords and masters. The BJP’s humiliation in Maharashtra has shown that Shah might be a great practitioner of realpolitik, but when it comes to Chanakya neeti, he still has a lot to learn from men like Sharad Pawar.

Shah’s contribution to Indian politics is, actually, overrated. Since his anointment as BJP president, India’s political map has changed drastically, edging the party out of its strongholds in central India. Over the past few months, the BJP has lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra; managed to sneak through the backdoor in Karnataka, Goa and the northeast; and was beaten decisively in Bihar and Delhi. Even in its stronghold Gujarat, the BJP just about managed to scrape through — primarily because of some last minute moves by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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The BJP, of course, won the Lok Sabha elections and swept Uttar Pradesh under Shah’s baton. But, much of the credit to these triumphs should go to Modi’s own image, Rahul Gandhi’s incompetence and three key events that preceded these elections — Pulwama, Uri and demonetisation. In the absence of these black swan events, the BJP would have found the going a bit difficult.

Ajit Pawar’s somersault on his volte face—he’s now back in the NCP after ditching it — tells us that there is only so much Shah and the ‘deep state’ can achieve in the absence of popular vote. Though much of India’s polity is dominated by the Chautala culture—Aayaram, Gayaram is Haryana’s contribution — there would always be stray cases of wily men like Sharad Pawar fighting back, not bending to Shah’s will.

Pawar’s fightback — and triumph — has two major implications for the immediate future. One, it takes the strips the BJP of its sheen of invincibility. And two, it gives the opposition a chance to reclaim both the ideological and political space it had ceded to Shah and Modi. Both these factors can help the opposition push the BJP into a corner in the next few months.

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In a few days, elections will take place in Jharkhand, and in February Delhi goes to polls. In Jharkhand, the contest is evenly poised with the opposition actually having a slight edge over the BJP. In Delhi, Kejriwal has regained a lot of ground he had lost by spending his energy on battling Modi, instead of working on the ground. In case the BJP loses in these elections, it would cry much louder than the man who was trampled over by a rat.