Maharashtra political crisis: So much for BJP's 'masterstroke'; party may have overplayed its hand in trusting NCP rebel Ajit Pawar

  • The argument for morality in politics is unalloyed nonsense but the BJP does need to consider whether its move was counterproductive to own interests

  • It is evident at this stage that there has been a split in the Pawar dynasty but the moot question is, did the BJP miscalculate the extent of the damage within Pawar family and did it overplay its hand in trusting the amount of influence that Ajit holds within the party and family

  • One cannot rule out more twists and turns in this saga, but as of now the BJP appears to be on backfoot. A defeat on floor of the House robs BJP of the chance to distinguish its brand from the rest, and leaves it looking silly and overeager

As the dust settles somewhat after an extraordinary day in Indian politics, the BJP may wonder whether it was guilty of premature celebration and if it was prudent at all for the party to make an audacious bid for power. Last 24 hours since Devendra Fadnavis was sworn-in as the chief minister for the second time with NCP leader Ajit Pawar as his deputy, the chain of events is leading to a conclusion that it might be difficult for the BJP to prove its numbers on the floor of the House.

This is not to make a moral argument against BJP's move to remain in power. The BJP, as the single-largest party, is well within its moral, political and legal rights to stake the claim if it has the numbers. To say, as Opposition leaders and some commentators are doing, that BJP's act of forming the government with support from NCP is "murder of democracy" is high rhetoric and bad logic.

The pre-poll alliance between BJP and Shiv Sena received the majority mandate for Fadnavis to serve a second consecutive term as chief minister. The BJP emerged as the single-largest party and its tally was nearly the double of Sena, the party that came second. NCP and Congress, who had another pre-poll alliance and fought their campaign against BJP-SS, came third and fourth, respectively.

 Maharashtra political crisis: So much for BJPs masterstroke; party may have overplayed its hand in trusting NCP rebel Ajit Pawar

Ajit Pawar with Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

Now, if Sena reneges on the deal and spurred on by overarching ambition of Uddhav Thackeray dumps his ideological fellow traveller and alliance partner to join hands with his political and ideological rivals to sit on the chief minister's chair, the burden of immorality, if any, lies with the Sena, NCP and Congress that apparently found it politically convenient to bury their differences for a share of the spoils.

This shouldn't surprise us because "morality" is an absurd concept in politics, but it is a trifle hypocritical to blame the BJP for "not playing fair" when the game itself is rigged. If "secular" parties Congress and NCP can rationalise their decision of backing the "Hindutva vadi" Sena by the "larger cause" theory of keeping BJP out, then it is foolish to assume that BJP — the single largest party — will just wait, watch and be fatalistic.

The argument for morality in politics is unalloyed nonsense but the BJP does need to consider whether its move was counterproductive to own interests. As this Firstpost piece argues, the BJP stood to gain politically if it had let an unstable and volatile coalition come to power in Maharashtra. The chances of such a coalition lasting the full term was minimal, Fadnavis would have boosted his image as a leader who is ready to sacrifice power for the sake of ideology and the BJP would have benefitted in the event of a mid-term poll, not to speak of the fact that Sena would have been cut to size.

Saturday morning's developments, that followed deft manoeuvres in the hours preceding it, saw the prime minister use his special powers to "approve the 'emergency' decision to recommend to the President to withdraw President's rule in Maharashtra, clearing the way for Fadnavis to take oath". By the early hours of Saturday, Fadnavis was back as chief minister and Ajit Pawar, who ostensibly provided "letter of support" from all 54 NCP MLAs, was sworn in as his deputy.

The nation woke up to the news that Fadnavis is the chief minister with NCP's support.

It made for a bizarre spectacle as morning newspapers carried all developments till Friday night when the tripartite negotiation between the Sena, NCP and Congress had ostensibly concluded and Sena chief Thackeray's name was agreed upon as the consensus chief ministerial candidate. The reality of Fadnavis as the second-term chief minister sat at odds with newspaper proclamations of Uddhav Thackeray as the prospective chief minister. In the surreal world of Indian politics, at least till Saturday morning, an impression gained ground that old fox Sharad Pawar had double-crossed the Congress and Sena, led them up the garden path while sealing the deal with BJP.

Not until the news conference held by Sharad Pawar, the NCP chief, that we got an inkling of the family rift that may have presented the BJP an opportunity to exploit. It is evident at this stage that there has been a split in the Pawar dynasty but the moot question is, did the BJP miscalculate the extent of the damage within Pawar family and did it overplay its hand in trusting the amount of influence that Ajit holds within the party and family?

As far as the numbers game is concerned, the BJP is 40 short of the majority mark. Ajit, the former legislative leader of the party, had produced a letter containing the signature of all 54 NCP lawmakers but Pawar senior has claimed that his status as the party's CLP gave Ajit unfettered access to the list of all 54 MLAs with their relevant details and signatures, and that he has misused his position to mislead the Governor. In reality, said Pawar senior at the news conference on Saturday, Ajit had the support of no more than 10-11 MLAs.

The number of "rebel MLAs" who backed Ajit has reduced to four by Sunday, if claims emerging from Sharad Pawar's camp is to be believed. Many NCP MLAs, who were present at the swearing-in ceremony at Raj Bhavan in New Delhi on Saturday morning, have since sworn their allegiance to Pawar senior, claiming that Ajit had "hoodwinked" them.

The innocence of these seasoned politicians who where apparently deceived by Pawar junior is disarming. In between, Ajit has been divested of his powers as the CLP, Jayant Patil has been appointed in his place, Pawar senior has claimed that his nephew's act of "indiscipline" won't be enough in derailing the Maha Vikas Aghadi and the NCP-Sena-Congress combine will form the government.

More importantly, if Ajit fails to engineer a sizeable split within NCP and wean 36 MLAs away from the party, he will fall prey to anti-defection law and the rebel MLAs will be disqualified. BJP's ask of proving the numbers will become harder. Whether or not it will have until 30 November to pass the floor test is also uncertain since the Supreme Court has announced that it will pass a judgement on this issue on Monday.

While the petitioners — Sena, Congress and NCP — want an immediate floor test, the counsel for BJP was arguing for more time in the apex court indicating that BJP might not be sure of its numbers yet. The fiasco in Karnataka, where the BS Yediyurappa government failed the floor test, will be fresh in BJP's memory. Anticipating further defections of MLAs, the Sena, Congress and NCP have all put their lawmakers under unoffical 'house arrest'.

That brings us to the moot question. It is preposterous to assume that the BJP did not think through the chain of events that unfolded since Saturday morning. If it did, it would have foreseen the removal of Ajit Pawar as the CLP and the legal battle that has now ensued in court. What had prompted the party that remained remarkably quiet on the surface, to take such a risk when the numbers are ostensibly not on its side? It is also hard to believe Sharad Pawar — who had engineered such a split in 1978 and toppled the Congress government of Vasantdada Patil to become the state's youngest chief minister at 38 — when he claims that he had no inkling of the 'rebellion led by Ajit'.

One cannot rule out more twists and turns in this saga, but as of now the BJP appears to be on backfoot. A defeat on floor of the House robs BJP of the chance to distinguish its brand from the rest, and leaves it looking silly and overeager. The 'masterstroke' will then be dubbed as folly. Was it a risk worth taking?

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Updated Date: Nov 25, 2019 09:17:55 IST