Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the spirit of the 2019 government formation, which rattled Maharashtra, refuses to rest. Recently, in an interview to a news channel, Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis stirred up a hornet’s nest when he stated that his attempt to form a government with NCP leader Ajit Pawar in November 2019 had the backing of NCP chief Sharad Pawar.
BJP State president Chandrashekhar Bawankule then claimed that while Mr. Sharad Pawar was “not averse” to an alliance with the BJP after the 2019 Assembly elections, he did not approve of Mr. Fadnavis being made Chief Minister in such a scenario. The question is, why has Mr. Fadnavis chosen this moment — over three years after he and Mr. Ajit Pawar were ‘secretly’ sworn-in in the presence of then Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari — to ruffle feathers?
The plot thickened when Mr. Sharad Pawar, while dismissing Mr. Fadnavis’ statement as false, said that had the morning swearing-in exercise with his nephew not occurred, President’s rule would never have been lifted from Maharashtra and Uddhav Thackeray could not have been Chief Minister of the tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. Was he hinting that the morning coup had in fact been stage-managed? He later commented that his remark about lifting President’s rule had been “made in jest.” However, given Mr. Sharad Pawar’s legendary reputation for adroit political manoeuvring, any statement by him is hard to dismiss as mere jest.
Whatever the truth about Mr. Fadnavis’ recent revelations, the BJP’s backroom intrigue with the ideologically opposed NCP originated prior to the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly elections. The long-standing alliances between the BJP and the Shiv Sena and between the Congress and the NCP had broken down then, and all the four parties contested the polls individually. While the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the State, it failed to secure a simple majority. Immediately after the results, the NCP offered unsolicited support to the BJP when the Shiv Sena dithered on forming a government with its saffron partner. Back then, Mr. Sharad Pawar had justified this by saying the NCP was being offered in the interest of providing Maharashtra with a stable government. However, the BJP snubbed the NCP. Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena then patched up with the BJP to form the government, with Mr. Fadnavis as Chief Minister.
But the BJP’s relations with the Shiv Sena continued to be fraught throughout the government’s tenure (2014-19). Each time when relations between the two parties hit a new low, the BJP’s top brass paid ‘non-political’ visits to Mr. Sharad Pawar’s stronghold of Baramati in Pune district. This was seen as the BJP’s strategy to keep the Shiv Sena in check. In February 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Mr. Pawar and praised the “Baramati model of development.” Later, the then Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Mr. Fadnavis also visited Baramati and paid tribute to Mr. Sharad Pawar’s “commitment to development.”
In this light, Mr. Fadnavis’ statements could indicate that the BJP is open to alternatives in the near future. It could also be read as a way of keeping a check on Eknath Shinde’s Sena. In this reading, Mr. Fadnavis, who was compelled to defer the post to Chief Minister Mr. Shinde following the latter’s coup last year, is anxious to ensure that Mr. Shinde does not become more popular than him.
Furthermore, the NCP’s decision last week to offer unsolicited support to the NDPP-BJP government in Nagaland only seems to reinforce the notion that a backchannel between the NCP and the BJP is operational. This was denied by the NCP chief who said that his party was backing Nagaland’s Neiphiu Rio and not the BJP.
Whatever be the case, Mr. Fadnavis and the BJP also hope to take advantage of the deepening fault-lines within the MVA. After the Election Commission of India’s decision to grant the Shiv Sena party name and symbol to the Shinde faction, the greatly weakened Thackeray Sena is fully dependent on the NCP and the Congress in the alliance. The NCP is undoubtedly the strongest of the three, with its partners often accusing it of seeking to expand at their expense. Mr. Fadnavis and Mr. Ajit Pawar, who is Leader of the Opposition, share good relations. Should Mr. Shinde get too big for his boots, Mr. Fadnavis may ‘recruit’ Mr. Ajit Pawar as his man into the BJP.