The month-long saga of who will form a government in Maharashtra seems to have ended on Tuesday. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party resigned, just three days after he was sworn in before dawn on Saturday. His announcement came hours after Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, a renegade from the Nationalist Congress Party, stepped down. Fadnavis held a press conference on Tuesday afternoon admitting that he did not have the numbers to form a government in the 288-member house.

The tumultuous events occurred a month after the state election results came on October 24, giving majority to the BJP and its alliance partner, the Shiv Sena. However, the Sena decided that it was not getting a fair deal from the BJP and broke away, leaving a genuinely hung assembly.

The numbers: BJP with 105 seats, Shiv Sena 56, the Nationalist Congress Party 54 and Congress 44. The rest are held by smaller parties and independents.

As the rift between the BJP and Sena seemed irreparable, an improbable alliance began to be worked out between the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress. The resignations of Fadnavis and Pawar came after a week of hectic activity, beginning with the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress combine seeming to finally come to an agreement on Friday about what sort of government they would run, despite appearing to hold extremely different ideologies.

They then found themselves pre-empted by the BJP in the early hours of Saturday, when the Governor revoked President’s rule and swore in Fadanvis, who claimed to have sufficient support from the Nationalist Congress Party under Ajit Pawar. That gambit failed.

Ajit Pawar’s uncle, Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar, marshaled his resources and sought support from the Shiv Sena to literally round up his party’s Members of Legislative Assembly. Together, the three parties held a “We are 162” event on Monday, insisting that they had sufficient numbers to go past the 145-seat halfway mark in the Assembly.

Together, the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress, if they have all their MLAs (including a back-from-failed-rebellion Ajit Pawar) would have 154, not counting others that might vote with them.

Devendra Fadnavis addresses a press conference to announce his resignation. Credit: PTI

In between all of this was an intervention by the Supreme Court, which, after hearings on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, ordered a floor test on Wednesday – which will not be held since Fadnavis has relinquished his position.

For a full recap of what happened over the weekend, read this. Here are a few quick takeaways from this turn of events in India’s richest state:

BJP gambit fails again

The Bharatiya Janata Party has tried this before – in recent memory.

In Karnataka in 2018, BS Yeddyurappa, as leader of the single largest party in the Assembly after elections, was quickly sworn in as chief minister, with the Governor giving him two whole weeks to prove his majority on the floor of the house. The Supreme Court intervened, saying he only had 48 hours to do so. This prompted Yeddyurappa to resign rather than lose the vote.

In Maharashtra too, the governor – who is expected to act independently – moved with alacrity to put Fadnavis in charge and gave him two weeks to prove his majority. This time period is important because it is generally seen as a way of providing enough leeway for the BJP to cajole or pressure MLAs of other parties to come on board.

Yet, here again the Supreme Court intervened and ordered a floor test on a much quicker deadline, albeit after the delay of two days. The BJP’s gameplan failed. Of course, this is partly because Ajit Pawar was unable to lure away a sufficient number of Nationalist Congress Party MLAs. But it also reflects the failure of this strategy, which presumes that if the BJP grabs hold of the chief ministerial seat, it can eventually manage the numbers in the House.

Sharad Pawar’s victory

There is absolutely no doubt that Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar has pulled off a major win. Many have said that the turning point of the elections was when he and his supporters flooded Mumbai in response to what was seen as a political move to interrogate him by the Enforcement Directorate in the middle of the campaign.

Pawar, a shrewd political actor who has generally been able to turn situations to his advantage, ensured that the NCP did not fall apart, despite the rebellion of his nephew – who has been unhappy about his role in the party for some time now. He is also said to have been at the core of negotiations between the Shiv Sena and the NCP-Congress, parties that would normally be at each others throats.

It is not for no reason that many will characterise this as a victory for Pawar over the BJP’s Amit Shah. As for Ajit Pawar, well, it remains to be seen how his return to the NCP will play out.

Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar in Mumbai on Sunday. Credit: PTI

BJP loses moral authority

Had the BJP sat back and allowed the Shiv Sena to tie-up with ideologically opposite parties like Congress and NCP, it could have gone to town about unholy alliances and power-hungry leaders coming together simply to keeping it out of power. Instead, it tried to pre-empt things by bringing on board NCP’s Ajit Pawar, whom Fadnavis had promised to put in jail during the campaign.

In other words, anything it might now accuse the Sena-NCP-Congress of doing – tying up with ideological opponents, being hungry for power – it has just attempted itself. While public memory may be short, especially if the new alliance proves to be unwieldy, for the moment the BJP has no ammunition.

How will unwieldy coalition operate?

As the dust settles on the BJP’s failed tactics, the attention will shift to the oddity that is a government headed by the Shiv Sena but featuring ministers and support from the NCP and the Congress. Such alliances are not unheard of in Indian politics. Indeed, in its early years the Shiv Sena was sheltered by the Congress in an attempt to displace the Communist parties that were then powerful in Mumbai.

Even so, the three parties and their power bases are not exactly complementary and one can easily see the government falling into constant bickering and infighting. No Thackeray has ever been in charge before either, although having Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister might actually help matters. Still, there is little clarity on what sort of government this coalition will offer the people of Maharashtra.

Will BJP pull another Karnataka/Bihar?

One theory that went around when the Shiv Sena said it was splitting off from the BJP over the question of its own candidate getting some time as chief minister was this: the Sena will work with the other two parties for two years, with its own chief minister, and then return to the BJP, which was always a much more natural ally.

The experience of two other states is instructive here: in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) combined with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress to form a government, only to split up and return to the BJP midway through the term. In Karnataka, though the BJP had egg on its face after Yeddyurappa’s failed attempt to take charge, it clawed its way back to power, bringing enough Opposition MLAs over to its side within a year of the election result.

The BJP, with 105 seats, is a strong Opposition party, one that will pounce on every opportunity to provoke squabbles between the alliance partners and draw support to its side. How long will the coalition last?

BJP’s middling state results

Here’s a very simple way of looking at the BJP’s results in state elections over the last few years:

  • 2017: Huge win in Uttar Pradesh
  • 2017: Close win in Gujarat
  • 2018: Single-largest party in Karnataka, can’t form government at first
  • 2018: Loses in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh
  • 2019: Dented in Haryana, single-largest party in Maharashtra but can’t form government

Of course, there was a huge Lok Sabha victory in the middle of those results, but it is clear that the BJP has not been nearly as successful at the state level as it has been at the Centre. Will this trend carry on? Up next, in a matter of days are elections in Jharkhand.