On completing one year in office on Saturday, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray was oozing with confidence in his media interviews. He detailed his government’s achievements — memorandums of understanding worth Rs 50,000 crore signed during the lockdown period, farm loan relief worth over Rs 19,000 crore, and so on and so forth. Thackeray hit out at the Narendra Modi government for non-cooperation and for sending central agencies on a political witch-hunt in Maharashtra. His parting words were a chilling reminder of his father Bal Thackeray’s roars as he cautioned his political adversaries against targeting his family: “Do remember you also have a family and children.”
For a CM occupying a chair with three uneven and moth-infested legs, Uddhav Thackeray must put up a brave face. His deputy, Ajit Pawar, driving down to the Raj Bhawan along with a group of MLAs must be a recurring dream — or a nightmare that’s hard to stave off. To make it worse, Congress treasurer Ahmed Patel, one of the architects of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), passed away last week. It was Patel who had convinced Sonia Gandhi to team up with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena to deny power to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra. Left to Rahul Gandhi, the Congress wouldn’t sleep with an ideological enemy even if it meant a BJP government in Maharashtra. His mother Sonia is a pragmatic politician and saw why Patel didn’t want the BJP to retain power in India’s commercial capital. The image of a sulking Rahul must also be weighing heavily on Uddhav Thackeray’s mind after Ahmed Patel’s demise.
That’s why the Maharashtra CM may be expecting teachers and graduates to make his life easier. Five teachers’ and graduates’ constituencies of the state legislative council will go to polls on 1 December — two in Pune division and one each in Nagpur, Amravati and Aurangabad divisions. It’s the first big test of the MVA government, an ideological hotchpotch of the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress. It’s the first time that the MVA is contesting an election as an alliance, with the NCP and the Congress contesting two seats each and the Shiv Sena one.
It may be a biennial election for the MLCs, but the size of the electorate and its geographical spread is significant enough to make it a verdict on the MVA as also Uddhav Thackeray’s governance. Over 12 lakh graduates and teachers will participate in these polls. Each of these constituencies is spread over several districts. Nagpur graduates’ constituency, for instance, is spread over six districts. Union minister Nitin Gadkari had first won this graduates’ constituency in 1989 and went on to win it four more times before contesting the Lok Sabha election in 2014.
The importance of council polls
There are two reasons why people in Maharashtra, including political experts, are watching these biennial elections for the legislative council so keenly.
The first is to see if the coalition of ideologically incompatible parties and once sworn enemies can campaign together. As it stands, the MVA seems to have cleared the first test in terms of bringing leaders and cadres of the three parties to campaign together. Collecting feedback from the ground, I happened to call up Ashish Dua, Congress secretary for Maharashtra, last Friday. He was in Nagpur and not in a mood to entertain the media, for sure: “You have to come and see how the MVA is working together on the ground. Krupal Tumane (Shiv Sena MP from Ramtek who had defeated Congress’ Mukul Wasnik and Kishor Uttamrao in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections), Sunil Kedar (Congress minister) and others are campaigning together. Ajit Pawar and Ashok Chavan campaigned in Aurangabad the other day. Leaders and cadres of all the three parties are campaigning as MVA. But that’s not good news for the media, which is always interested in showing the coalition in a poor light….”
Well, let’s leave it at that. Coming to the second reason for this huge interest in these elections, an impressive performance by the MVA in a direct contest against the BJP will make the ideological compromise worth it for the sceptical leadership of the three parties, especially Rahul Gandhi. It will also be the people’s verdict on one year of the MVA government, especially its Covid-19 management. An emboldened Uddhav can then focus on long-term economic revival plans and other imperatives of governance. The next test of the MVA coalition will be in local body elections in 2021 and 2022 and the CM will have enough time to fix the loose ends in his government.
But, on 3 December, if the results of the elections in these teachers’ and graduates’ constituencies are adverse for the MVA, it would be a blow to what a senior politician told me “a holding operation that the MVA is.”
Not that there will be any immediate threat from the BJP. Union minister Raosaheb Danve said last week the BJP will form the government in Maharashtra in the next “two-three months.” “We are just waiting for legislative council polls to conclude,” he added.
Former CM Devendra Fadnavis was circumspect two days later. The BJP is ready to form an alternative government whenever the “unnatural alliance” falls, he said.
The threat within
Unlike in other states such as Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP engineered defections in the Congress to bring down its government, Maharashtra poses bigger challenges. The BJP has 105 MLAs and nine more from allies, which takes the total tally to 114 in the 287-member assembly (excluding the vacancy created by the death of an NCP MLA on the weekend). The BJP and its allies need at least 30 MLAs from the MVA to defect just to reach the majority mark of 144. Given that no party would undertake such an exercise without having a few in reserves, the BJP must ensure the defection of around 40 MLAs from the ruling MVA. It’s not impossible for Amit Shah’s BJP, but is extremely difficult for faction-ridden Maharashtra BJP split along pro and anti-Fadnavis lines.
Therefore, the BJP must count on the contradictions within the “unnatural alliance” to bring the Maharashtra government down. If the MVA were to lose to the BJP in the legislative council elections, alarm bells would start ringing at 12, Tughlaq Lane in Delhi where Rahul Gandhi stays. Expected to be re-elected the Congress president in February next year, Rahul may like to iron out the ideological wrinkles in the party as his priority; and Maharashtra is all crumpled from his standpoint.
Defeat of the MVA in the council polls would convince him even more that he was right and Ahmed Patel wrong about joining hands with the Shiv Sena. There is always the risk of a large chunk of Congress MLAs shifting their loyalty if the high command decides to rock the MVA boat, which may force mid-term polls. But for Rahul Gandhi, his ideology (or whatever he means by it) is known to come before the party.
Uddhav Thackeray would, therefore, expect the teachers and graduates to give him a helping hand by electing the MVA candidates. It would stave off the threat to the coalition in the immediate future even though few would wager a bet on the MVA lasting five years. Devendra Fadnavis is not the real threat. Uddhav Thackeray should worry about Rahul Gandhi and his Leftist and ultra-Leftist advisors.
Views are personal.