A political turning point or a pause?


The BJP’s Maharashtra fiasco must not be interpreted as a setback to the Modi government’s stealthy ways of operation

The Maharashtra coup that saw an abridged government being sworn in under cover of darkness unbeknown to the rest of the country, has deservedly ended in ignominy and shame for the actors who included two high constitutional figures and the Prime Minister.

The usurper Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis from the Bharatiya Janata Party, and his fly-by-night deputy, Ajit Pawar, a rebel from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), were pushed back mainly by the vigilance of the Supreme Court of India which ordered them to prove their majority forthwith and in a manner transparent to the average citizen — that is via a live telecast that would have inescapably captured the truth of who voted whom.

Shadowy moves

Those who sneaked into government covertly, in the shadowy hours before dawn, would hardly have been willing to prove their legitimacy by daylight with everyone watching and clearly without the numbers required to stay on in power. But while it is a matter of satisfaction that the denouement in Mumbai came in the backdrop of Constitution Day, the day India’s Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution, it would be premature to see the fitting climax as a return to constitutional norms — not given how events have unfolded over the past six years.

Indeed, it must be remembered that the brazen overreach that saw Mr. Fadnavis and Mr. Ajit Pawar installed as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, respectively, was not a one-off affair, a misstep so to speak by the Narendra Modi government. As should be clear by now, stealth and fait accompli have been the signature style of governance under Mr. Modi, who, in his second term, has been joined by Amit Shah, previously the BJP chief and now the Home Minister. Mr. Shah has built up a formidable reputation for secrecy, deception and pulling off the impossible; in the narration of the Delhi commentariat, he is an updated Chanakya with the same genius for foresight and lightning action.

It is this talent that presumably accounts for what happened in the intervening hours between November 22 and November 23, 2019. The headline across morning newspapers on November 23 was that Maharashtra was set to see the Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray form an alliance government with the NCP and the Indian National Congress. At the same time, television studios were announcing that the State had got a new government led, not by Mr. Thackeray, but by Mr. Fadnavis, who along with Mr. Ajit Pawar, had been administered the oath of office and secrecy early in the morning, with no witnesses present.

Undoubtedly, those who had planned the furtive strike had their own understanding of the term “oath of office and secrecy”; that power was to be seized in secrecy. Among those who aided this clandestine operation were men of the highest standing: The President of India Ramnath Kovind, who awoke from his sleep to endorse the revocation of President’s rule (imposed after the BJP, the Shiv Sena and the NCP, each by itself, failed to form a government), State Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, who administered the oath of office to Mr. Fadnavis and Mr. Pawar, and most incredibly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who persuaded himself to invoke a special power to enable the revocation of President’s rule overriding the Cabinet. All three men acted as if they were dealing with an emergency that could not wait for the sun to rise.

Supreme Court’s intervention

The derring-do carried the stamp of Mr. Shah, and the TV media was naturally ecstatic. Their Chanakya had lived up to his name. It is worth pausing here to reflect on how often the Modi government has shown precisely this kind of audacity. The Maharashtra stunt would likely have passed off without any consequence, indeed even been treated as a new normal in the Modi-Shah era of constant surprises, but for two things. The Supreme Court’s intervention to make the floor test transparent which ruled out victory through chicanery. Second, the stout determination displayed by a 79-year-old political warhorse called Sharad Pawar. Uncle to Ajit Pawar and head of the NCP, Pawar Senior showed that on a good day he could outfox the BJP’s Chanakya. His side stayed united through all the blandishments offered to it. By the time the drama ended, no one quite knew what had happened. It was even speculated that Mr. Pawar had sent nephew Ajit Pawar as a Trojan horse into the BJP camp.

Will Maharashtra pump fresh energy into the national Opposition? Not necessarily, considering the obverse of the BJP’s immorality is not the Opposition’s morality but another immorality witnessed in the union of the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress. The Sena and the Congress are ideological opposites. The Sena is to the right of the BJP and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the season of Nathuram Godse Bhakti, it must be recalled that the Sena once venerated Gandhi’s assassin. How long can the Congress pretend this does not matter? How long before the BJP traps the Sena on its Hindutva roots?

The Supreme Court’s intervention and Mr. Sharad Pawar apart, there is a third factor that tripped up the BJP in Maharashtra. The national attention in the State was focused so much on the BJP’s strong-arm tactics that the party simply could not work up passions around Hindutva, nor claim national interest, its stock-in-trade in all previous instances of unilateralism.

For ‘national interest’

A single common feature marks all the major decisions of the BJP government. From demonetisation through electoral bonds, banning of the triple talaq, surgical strikes on Pakistan, to the moves in Jammu and Kashmir, every single act of grave national import has been presented by this government either as a fait accompli or steamrolled through unilaterally. The justification was always national interest which effectively silenced the Opposition. Mr. Shah’s announcement that the National Register of Citizens, which has serious implications for Muslims, will be extended across the country is also of a piece with this ambush-style nationalism.

Campaigning in Jharkhand recently, the Prime Minister took credit for facilitating a solution to the dispute around “the land of Lord Ram’s birth”, which, he said, had remained hostage to the Congress’s vote-bank politics. There is a troubling suggestion here: that the temple verdict was perhaps a fait accompli. That aside, it is clear that the BJP intends to fully use the Ram temple victory, projecting it as another nationalistic milestone in the journey of the Modi government.

The Modi government’s announcement of demonetisation had been preceded by utmost secrecy. It caught unawares not just the Opposition but Mr. Modi’s own Cabinet. But the government bought the country’s acquiescence in what is now acknowledged as a major disaster by citing nationalism. The Modi government presented another fait accompli when it bombed across the Line of Control to avenge the Pulwama terror attack. Again it was national interest with no questions allowed. One more cloak and dagger operation, passed off as a national imperative, saw Jammu and Kashmir stripped of its special status, downgraded and its politicians sent to jail. Electoral bonds were rammed through as a money bill in the national cause and triple talaq became a gender issue whose prohibition no one could oppose.

Is Maharashtra a turning point for the Opposition? Or is it merely a pause in the BJP’s Hindu nationalism project? Most likely, the latter.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. Email: vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 1:40:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-political-turning-point-or-a-pause/article30118782.ece

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