Who will form the new government in Maharashtra? All through Monday, it seemed that the Shiv Sena would wrest power from the Bharatiya Janata Party by seeking the support of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress.
But after hours of intense suspense, the day ended with a dramatic twist: the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress did not respond to the Shiv Sena on time, the state’s Governor denied extra time to the Sena to prove a majority, and the NCP, which won just 54 seats in the Assembly election, was called upon to try and form a government.
In the election that took place on October 21, the BJP won 105 seats in the 288-member assembly, and was expected to comfortably form a government with its official alliance partner, Shiv Sena, which had won 56 seats. But the two saffron parties reached an impasse after the Shiv Sena accused the BJP of going back on a pre-election promise to share the chief minister’s post equally for two-and-a-half years each.
On Sunday, the BJP opted out of the government, telling Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari that it did not have the numbers to form a government. It passed the baton on to the Shiv Sena, which hoped to form a majority of at least 154 seats with the support of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, which won 44 seats. But after keeping the Shiv Sena on tenterhooks all through Monday, the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress alliance may now have the upper hand. The Nationalist Congress Party has been given till Tuesday night to prove a majority.
Irrespective of Tuesday’s outcome, the election drama is likely to alter voter perception of the Shiv Sena. The saffron party’s decision to tie up with the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress sparked ire among BJP and Hindutva supporters on social media, who accused the Sena of cheating not just the BJP but also the Sena’s own founder, Bal Thackeray, who often vehemently attacked the Congress.
Many Muslim voters, however, have been feeling both bemused and relieved by the turn of events in the state. On Monday morning and afternoon, Scroll.in spoke to Muslim voters in Mumbai and found that most of them were happy to accept the unlikely alliance between Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress as long as it kept the BJP out of power in the state.
“The BJP has ruined the economy with notebandi [demonetisation] and GST [Goods and Services Tax], and we are still suffering from their effects,” said Shakil Shaikh, a taxi driver from a slum in Mumbai’s Kherwadi area. “It is a shaitan ki party [the devil’s party] and I am glad to see it go.”
‘Better than the BJP’
Kherwadi, a large slum populated almost entirely by Muslims, falls within Bandra East constituency, which has elected a Shiv Sena MLA for several years. This year, however, the seat was won by the Zeeshan Siddique, son of Congress leader Baba Siddique. While taxi drivers Shakil Shaikh and his friend Ayub Khan are happy that the candidate they voted for won, they are now wholeheartedly backing the Shiv Sena to be the leading party in the new Maharashtra government.
“The BJP was rightfully given the first opportunity to form the government, but now that they have refused, it is the Shiv Sena’s right to take over,” said Ayub Khan. Khan acknowledged that the Shiv Sena has a long history of instigating and inflicting violence on marginalised communities in Maharashtra, particularly Muslims, North Indians and South Indians. “But now the party seems to have changed, and [NCP chief] Sharad Pawar is very sharp – he will keep the Shiv Sena under control.”
According to the Shrikrishna Commission report of 1998, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and several other leaders of the party had played a significant role in inciting violent Hindu mobs to attack Muslims during the Mumbai riots of 1992-’93 that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid by a Hindutva mob. The Shiv Sena had claimed that it had played an important role in demolishing the mosque. But like Ayub Khan, several other Muslims to whom Scroll.in spoke said they were willing to look past the Shiv Sena’s communal history in light of today’s political situation.
“The BJP has always known only one thing – making Hindus and Muslims fight. But the Shiv Sena has changed now, and realises all this communalism is pointless,” said Saddam Husain, a 30-year-old metal goods vendor from Mumbai’s Andheri West constituency. “I never really supported the Shiv Sena earlier, but in this case, the BJP is more wrong, and as Muslims we must support those who are right.” Husain is also excited by the prospect of 29-year-old Aditya Thackeray, who won the Shiv Sena seat from Worli, becoming the Chief Minister.
Mohammed Zafar, the owner of a hand embroidery business in a large Muslim-dominated slum in Andheri West, also believes the Shiv Sena has made a tactical decision to tone down its communalism. “They know that if they start targeting Muslims and North Indians now, instead of focusing on progress work, they will lose all support of the people,” said Zafar. “In any case, a Shiv Sena-led government will be a thousand times better than having a BJP government in the state.”
Zafar’s main problem with the BJP is not its Hindutva ideology but its economic policies. Since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power in the Lok Sabha in 2014, Zafar’s hand embroidery business has suffered huge slumps. “I used to hire 15 to 20 craftsmen, but now there is work for just two of them,” he said. “The BJP gave us notebandi, a bad economy and the job crisis, so I don’t understand how it even won 105 seats in the first place.”
‘Democracy is already ruined’
Zafar’s neighbour Saeed Shaikh struck a different note from many of the other Muslims Scroll.in met. “I voted for the BJP this election because Devendra Fadnavis is a good man who goes to villages and listens to people,” said Shaikh, who is upset that the Shiv Sena’s demands for a 50-50 formula has led to a break-up of its alliance with the BJP.
“If this is how they want to behave, they should never have allied with the BJP at all,” he said. “Uddhav Thackeray has created all this havoc only because he wants his son to be the CM. But Aditya Thackeray is too young to rule, so the Shiv Sena should not be in such a hurry.”
There are also some Muslims, like Alam Khan from Bandra East’s Naupada slum, who are completely disillusioned by the power tussle in Maharashtra and the state of Indian politics.
“In the past few years, it has become clear that the public mandate does not matter at all – political parties do whatever they want anyway,” said Alam Khan, a 28-year-old maulvi at a local mosque. He cited the examples of recent state government elections in Goa, Karnataka and Manipur, where coalition governments were formed against voters’ mandates. “To me it makes no difference how this political drama in Maharashtra ends – democracy is already ruined.”