The first takeaway from this likely scenario is that the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition has failed.
Politics is difficult to predict, but in all probability Maharashtra will see, in due course, a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition come to power. The state has, for the moment, been put under President’s rule. The Assembly is in suspended animation. However, as and when the non-BJP coalition puts its act together, it would be free to apprise the governor that it has the requisite majority, and the governor would be duty-bound to convene the Assembly and give the claimants the right to prove their majority on the floor of the House.
The first takeaway from this likely scenario is that the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition has failed. There were many who believed that the Shiv Sena’s recalcitrance was but brinkmanship to get the best possible deal — and ministerial portfolios — in an eventual — and inevitable — reconciliation with the BJP, its pre-poll alliance partner. But the Shiv Sena did not bend or blink, belying the optimistic noises being made by Devendra Fadnavis, the outgoing BJP chief minister.
Why was the Shiv Sena so unyielding, so inexplicably adamant, in asserting the 50:50 power sharing formula with the BJP, including a rotational CM? Was it just petulance, stubbornness, or cussedness (as some in the BJP would like to see it), and plain and simple loyalty to the newly emergent scion of the Thackeray clan, Aaditya, the first in his family to have fought and won an election? Or, was it that the BJP had actually reneged on a more generous promise it may have made under the imperative to tie up a pre-poll alliance with the Shiv Sena? The BJP maintained that it had made no such promise. It (rightly perhaps) believed that the CM must be from the BJP, since the party had 105 seats against the Sena's 56. But, the Shiv Sena was emphatic that the promise was made. Where the truth lies between these opposing narratives only the leaders of the BJP and the Shiv Sena know.
Is the breakup between the BJP and the Shiv Sena indicative of a failure on the part of the BJP in managing coalition politics? The Shiv Sena is one of the oldest allies of the BJP and ideologically close to it. And yet, we see an unseemly rupture. Perhaps, after its stupendous victories in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP is suffering from triumphal rigidity that precludes the accommodation required to successfully handle the complexities of coalition arrangements, wherein, very often, the larger party yields more in order to gain alliance good will. After all, as the Congress-JDS government in Karnataka proved — albeit on a short lived basis — the CM does not always have to come from the larger party in a coalition. The BJP will have to decide whether it wants resilient coalition politics or an imperium in which it will always have its way, and in which allies will be dispensable on the altar of numerically dominated unilaterism. The latter approach may be more in consonance with the new political aggression demonstrated by Amit Shah, but as Maharashtra has shown, it is not without its pitfalls. The bottomline is that the BJP has been shown the door in that state.
The unexpected gainer in this imbroglio is the Congress. It got the least number of seats — 44 — among the parties. However, now it is poised to be a participant in the Maharashtra government, with possibly a dozen cabinet portfolios, and a deputy chief ministership to boot. Yet, the final word cannot be said about what the Congress will do. It can justify aligning with a party like the Shiv Sena — which it has always opposed — only if the BJP is seen as the bigger opponent that must be vanquished. Chanakya has said that this, indeed, should be the strategy: identify the principal enemy, and then use every instrumentality to defeat it. Such an approach requires singleminded focus and clarity of thought, something the Congress often lacks. The best option for the Congress would have been to give the NCP — the local party — the lead, and say that it will go along with what its pre-poll alliance partner decides, thereby retaining — at least to some extent — its ideological chastity. However, a common minimum programme is the next best option, and while reports say that it is close to finalisation, there could be surprises until the deal is finally done.
While the circus of politics goes on, the people of Maharashtra rightly want a quick end to this process, and the installation of a stable and effective government. The three allies now absorbed in negotiations on pelf and principle must understand this. The governor must play an impartial role, in accordance with the dignity of the post he occupies, and the provisions of the Constitution. If an alternative government is possible, and clear evidence is provided for this, he is duty-bound to give it a chance, in preference to the reflex promulgation of President's rule.
In spite of being the single largest party, the BJP will remain the outsider, a spectator to this frenetic exercise in stitching up an alternative government. But, it is to be seen if it will remain a mute spectator. The party believes that it has been denied its due role in running Maharashtra due to the obduracy of a junior partner bent on making unreasonable claims. In my view, it will watch very carefully the progress of this non-BJP government, and assiduously prey — as any opposition party should do — on its weaknesses and internal contradictions. Power lost can mean another opportunity gained in the future, or an opportunity denied in the present, depending on how you view things. If the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress combine works well, and provides effective governance, the BJP will be the loser. If it does not, the BJP may just be the surprise gainer in the next round, whenever that comes about. Either way, the BJP must be surprised by the turn of events, and the extent to which the Shiv Sena was willing to go in order not to play second fiddle to the BJP, its alliance partner for the longest period of time.