President's Rule in Maharashtra: If governments cannot be changed through elections, democracy stands diminished

  • The use of Presidents Rule to keep opposition parties out of power was a favoured tactic in the country during the rule of Indira Gandhi, when the Congress was a behemoth of the sort that the BJP is now becoming.

  • If every election leads to the rule of the same party and largely the same few individuals, it is not very different from the one-party rule of China.

  • Without the possibility of changing governments through elections, democracy is diminished.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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Maharashtra has finally slipped into President’s Rule after a prolonged crisis over government formation following a breakdown in the pre-poll alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, which together wound up with 161 seats in the assembly of 288, well over the halfway mark of 144. The undoing of the alliance sparked a potential realignment of political forces, since the Nationalist Congress Party, the Congress and the Shiv Sena together command a majority – but they were unable to issue letters of support for one another fast enough for the satisfaction of the state’s governor, Bhagat Singh Koshiyari. The poll results were declared on 24 October, and the BJP got until 10 November to try and form the government. The Shiv Sena got one day, and their request for 48 hours more was turned down. The NCP was called next, but got less than 24 hours before the governor recommended President’s Rule.

The use of President’s Rule to keep opposition parties out of power was a favoured tactic in the country during the rule of Indira Gandhi, when the Congress was a behemoth of the sort that the BJP is now becoming. Of the more than 115 instances of President’s Rule previous to this, the vast majority occurred under Congress rule, not least because the Congress ruled the country for the longest period after Independence. The overwhelming dominance of the Congress in those days when it bestrode Indian politics like a colossus, forming and dismissing governments at will, eventually forced an alliance of the strangest of political bedfellows.

 Presidents Rule in Maharashtra: If governments cannot be changed through elections, democracy stands diminished

The idea that enabled unlikely combinations of forces, such as during the Emergency and in 1989, was not based on ideology, but on political necessity. Representational image. PTI

During the Emergency, the RSS and the Jana Sangh, then relatively marginal forces, made common cause with the socialists, including union leaders such as George Fernandes, in the opposition movement led by the Leftist activist leader Jayprakash Narayan. That unlikely alliance paved the way for the first non-Congress government of independent India in 1977. However, the Congress led by the Gandhi family returned to power only two years later, and continued to rule until 1989. That year, the opposition, under the leadership of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, defeated the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi. A minority government under VP Singh as Prime Minister was formed. The government Singh led was one that was supported by both the CPI(M) and the BJP.

The idea that enabled such unlikely combinations of forces, both during the Emergency and in 1989, was not based on ideology, but on political necessity. The Congress was simply too big and powerful for any one opposition party to fight. The opponents therefore put their ideological differences on the backburner and set about wresting power from the incumbents. The motivations of the individual politicians who created and participated in those alliances may have been less than noble in many instances, but the overall effect was one essential to a healthy democracy – the existence, however flawed, of an alternative.

Without the possibility of changing governments through elections, democracy is diminished.

If every election leads to the rule of the same party and largely the same few individuals, it is not very different from the one-party rule of China.

The rise, following 1989, of caste politics after VP Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report on reservations, and of religious politics following the arrest of his ally LK Advani in 1990 when he was trying to lead a rath yatra towards the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya – an arrest that caused Singh’s government to fall – have reshaped Indian politics since. The era of single party rule ended, and from then until 2019, for 30 years, we saw governments that were alliances. This year’s election results, in which the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi did unexpectedly well following tensions with Pakistan, have returned India to a state of de facto single party government. The allies have become marginal; they exist in government at the BJP’s pleasure.

It was this growing marginalisation that the BJP’s oldest ally, and its partner in Hindutva ideology, the Shiv Sena, resented. In their fight for an equal share of power in Maharashtra, the Sena has now become the first party to quit the present government at the centre. It has also expressed its readiness to form a government with support from its rivals, the NCP and Congress. Dithering on the part of those two has given the BJP government at the centre an opportunity to impose President’s Rule. This gives the BJP more time and opportunity to try and break off MLAs from other parties into its own fold.

However, it also leaves the Sena, NCP and Congress with the possibility that they can work out an alliance that could potentially spark the beginning of a new phase in Maharashtra politics. The government they form may not last long – VP Singh’s lasted less than a year – but the effects of the realignments may go a long way. This is because of factors older than ideology, similar to the ones at play during VP Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister.

The Sena and NCP are both essentially Maratha parties. The Sena under Bal Thackeray built its muscle as the party of the Marathi manoos, the common Marathi man. The NCP was and is a party with a distinctly Maratha identity under the leadership of Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar. The BJP in Maharashtra had the Nagpur Brahmin Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister, and the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation with a legacy of Nagpur Brahmin leadership. In these recently concluded polls, Shivaji’s descendant Udayanraje Bhosale, who switched from NCP to BJP, was defeated, losing to the NCP candidate. In 2016, after the BJP nomination of another Shivaji descendant to the Rajya Sabha, Pawar had harked back to the rule of the Brahmin Peshwas, saying acidly, “The Peshwas have appointed a Chhatrapati”.

There is a historical tension between the Marathas and Brahmins dating back to the times of Peshwa rule in the 1700s and 1800s. They have both long been in intermittent social conflict with the third major group in Maharashtra politics, the Dalits. This is the home state of Babasaheb Dr BR Ambedkar, and Dalit parties, while divided amongst themselves, are a strong presence. The battle of Bhima Koregaon, where Dalit Mahar forces under the British defeated the Peshwa army 200 years ago, is still a live issue in Maharashtra politics.

Historical memory and caste identity may start to coalesce in different ways in Maharashtra if there is a consolidation of Maratha forces represented by the NCP and Shiv Sena, and an adjustment with the support base of the Congress which traditionally includes a strong Dalit component.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2019 18:24:28 IST