As angry allies bicker, will glue of power hold?

Columnist  | Dhaval Kulkarni

Opinion, Oped

Muslim leaders from the Congress want more representation for their community in the Cabinet.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray (Photo: PTI)

Bargaining, as many practitioners of that fine art will aver, has an element of relative discontent built into the system. Neither of the parties involved in the transaction are completely happy, with each feeling he or she could have secured a better deal.

The situation may get complicated further, if there are not two, but three and more parties involved in the transaction, with the element of relative discontent rising manifold.

Like in Maharashtra, where none of the three political parties involved in forming the “Maha Vikas Aghadi” (MVA) government feel that they have secured the best deal. Elements from each of the three formations — Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress, feel they could have bargained harder for more benefits, incremental as they may be.

The Shiv Sena feels that except the chief minister’s post for party chief Uddhav Thackeray and the urban development department, it has got little else in terms of “cream” positions despite being the largest of the three parties. The NCP, which Shiv Sena leaders claim walked off with the best bargain, in terms of departments and portfolios, is contending with its own dilemmas and tussles.

Veteran NCP leaders feel they have been given relatively insignificant portfolios, with the party’s low-profile Anil Deshmukh emerging as a dark horse to corner the powerful home department. The Shiv Sena was eager to hold charge of this department, which comes with its massive powers of control over the police and the intelligence and surveillance machinery.

The Congress, in turn, is sulking over being given little substantial except the revenue department. But, to use an analogy given by one of its leaders, the party’s condition is akin to a student who appeared for an exam, fearing the inevitable, but unexpectedly passed with flying colours.

The teething troubles for the new government were obvious when the Cabinet was expanded a full month after Uddhav, the first in his family to hold governmental office, was sworn in with six ministers (two from each party). The subsequent Cabinet expansion saw an outbreak of discontent across all three parties.

Many veteran Shiv Sena legislators and loyalists were upset at being left out, with three Independents supporting the MVA government being accommodated in the council of ministers at their cost. Unusually for the monolithic party, some legislators vented out their anger against the leadership in the media, and a Shiv Sena MLA’s rebellion in Sangli cost the MVA control over the local zilla parishad (district council).

Supporters of a Congress MLA who was not included in the Cabinet ransacked the party office in Pune, while loyalists of some threatened to quit in protest against the non-inclusion of their leaders. Muslim leaders from the Congress want more representation for their community in the Cabinet.

While the anger among those feeling left out and slighted is inevitable, even those who have been included in the Cabinet feel that they could have secured more.

For instance, Congress minister Vijay Vadettiwar, who was the Leader of the Opposition in the previous Legislative Assembly, sulked at being given charge of the “insignificant” other backward classes (OBC) welfare portfolio. Mr Vadettiwar, who was skipping Cabinet meetings, finally came around after getting the relief and rehabilitation department.

The delicate balancing act involved in the exercise was evident when the distribution of portfolios was announced a week after the Cabinet was expanded, and after much back-and-forth.

But even in the hurly-burly of politics, where consensus is often elusive, many political players agree that at least for the moment, the Sharad Pawar-led NCP seems to have cornered the lion’s share. The Shiv Sena, they note, may have won the battle (snapping ties with the BJP to ally with erstwhile foes Congress and NCP), but lost while coming to terms.

Ajit Pawar, the often-prodigal nephew of the NCP chief, has been drafted into the government as the deputy chief minister and finance minister. However, many feel that what had happened behind the scenes before his early morning swearing-in as deputy to the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis in a shortlived government, is yet to be revealed.

The relatively inexperienced team of the Shiv Sena, which as an organisation is known less for its administrative acumen than for its use of muscle power on the streets, will also have to contend with the presence of veteran NCP leaders in the Cabinet. The NCP, which ruled Maharashtra from 1999 to 2014 in an alliance with the Congress, never loses an opportunity to put its ally on the backfoot.

Now, with three parties involved in this exercise, will these power games escalate, and eventually, combined with the discontent in the ranks, bring down the government as the BJP, the single-largest party in the legislature, hopes? Even in the Opposition, the BJP faces an opportunity of seizing the anti-incumbency space in Maharashtra for a comeback.

More important, will these three parties, which have clashing and overlapping spheres of influence, be able to forge a pre-poll alliance, or will they live out the contradiction of being in power, but remain foes at the local level?

An interesting piece of trivia that stares at all in the face is how Maharashtra has seen pre-term elections being held just twice in its history, albeit in different sets of circumstances. In 1980, Sharad Pawar’s Progressive Democratic Alliance government, formed with the ruling Janata Party in 1978, was dismissed by Indira Gandhi shortly after her return to power at the Centre; and in 1999, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance called for elections six months before they were due. In both cases, the incumbent governments did not return to power. Interestingly, both were alliance governments.

Power is a glue, keeping together the most unlikely allies, like the Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP, who are united more by expediency than any conviction, ideological or otherwise. However, will this glue continue to keep these three parties together, or will the weight of contradictions and competing forces make it lose its binding power? Like the glue that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men used unsuccessfully to put Humpty Dumpty together again?