We saw an interesting twist to an unambiguous people’s verdict in Maharashtra. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance campaigning on an unabashed Hindutva platform obtained a clear mandate, winning 160 of the 288 seats in the state assembly. The BJP won 105 seats of the 152 it contested, a strike rate of over 70%. The Shiv Sena had a strike rate of about 40%, wining 56 of 124 for which it ran. Clearly, it was a win for the worst form of Hindu revanchism, for the Shiv Sena stands for – or stood for – everything right of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It was an unambiguous victory for combined retrograde ideologies of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Shiv Sena.
The people of Maharashtra had spoken and, under normal circumstances, their wishes should have been respected. But the election results clearly told the Shiv Sena that their time was running out. The BJP, the once-junior partner of the alliance, was now the engine of the Hindutva front in Maharashtra. The Sena could no longer be sure of its place in Maharashtra politics the next time, so it bailed out of the alliance.
The pre-election alliance of the BJP and Shiv Sena won over 42% of the popular vote, while the two Congresses together won only 32.6% of the popular vote. If there was any morality and decency left in our politics, the rightful government in Maharashtra should have been of the two undesirables. But that was not to be. Udhav Thackeray pulled out of the right-wing formation.
Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar has never made any bones that he believed in to old adage that “politics is the art of the possible”. What Otto von Bismarck said was a little more. He actually said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” In Maharashtra’s case, it clearly was the less worse.
Art of the possible
What was possible in Maharashtra went way beyond what was thinkable. The secondary theme of the BJP-led alliance’s campaign was to arrest the growth of corruption in the state by promising to arrest Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar and change his way of life in jail. The suddenly marooned BJP found a lifesaver when Ajit Pawar did an Udhav Thackeray on his family party, the National Congress Party. It had nothing to do with policy or political morality. It was a question of his place in the family pecking order. Like Sonny Corleone, Ajit Pawar too had a tendency towards the rash and went alone to meet his fate.
Now we have the likelihood of a Shiv Sena-led government with the two Congresses supporting it from within. The BJP may very well say it is glad to have the Shiv Sena monkey off its back. Narendra Modi once described the Shiv Sena as a hafta collection party. Now the BJP can hope to muscle into the Shiv Sena base in India’s richest state.
But this is not a simple “art of the possible” power play. This newly scrambled alliance of a renegade Hindutva group with the two Congresses has major implications for Indian politics. Soon after the Supreme Court’s somewhat judicially dubious verdict on Ram birthplace in Ayodhya, many in the Congress welcomed the judgment, just as many of its leaders welcomed the scrubbing of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave Kashmir its special status. By deciding to remain quiet on it, the so-called liberal or centrist parties in our political firmament made their ideological choice. They all moved rightwards. Now they are allied with the ugly face of that reality. Allied with a party that viscerally hates religious, ethnic and regional minorities. So where does this leave Indian politics? Do we now have two right wing formations?
When the team led by BR Ambedkar wrote the Constitution, they obviously did not contemplate the capricious disregard for norms and disregard for decency and consistency inherent in our leaders. How “we” look is a no longer a concern. In the Maharashtra drama, we saw all provisions and expectations of the Constitution flouted and trampled on by all the constitutional authorities.
The Maharashtra governor, Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh apparatchik, willingly accepted signatures by all the newly elected Nationalist Congress Party MLAs on sheets of paper attached to Ajit Pawar’s “letter of support” to the BJP’s chosen legislative party leader, Devendra Fadnavis. Commonsense would have told Koshiyari that while some support for Ajit Pawar was possible, all was impossible. Did the governor allowed his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliations that to overpower his sense of morality? Clearly he has shown himself as not fit to hold that position. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took recourse a rarely used provision intended to be deployed during a war or financial emergency to facilitate the daybreak coup leading to Fadnavis being sworn in as chief minister.
What we have witnessed in these past weeks in Maharashtra is a complete collapse of the notion of politics being about vision for a better future and what is best for the people. Instead we saw a sordid drama played out in five-star hotels in Bombay, with money replacing vision and ideas.
The Pawar family schism that so impacted Maharashtra politics is yet another metaphor for the collapse of the party system in the country. From Punjab to Tamil Nadu, we now have a party system that is neither constitutional nor legal. Though the founders of this Republic never used the term “political party” even once in the Constitution, from day one we were intended to be and are a party-based democracy. When people elect representatives they are in fact choosing parties.
Elite control of parties
How parties function then becomes critical to our democracy. If parties did not function or are not required to function in a prescribed Constitutional and democratic manner, the leadership inevitably migrates into the hands of an elite, as we have seen in almost all our political parties now. These political parties have come together on the basis of a shared region, religion or caste, with any one of these impulses being the dominating motive for coming together. The only party that claims a pan-Indian appeal has long ceased to be anything but an old feudal order presided over by an aristocracy. None of these parties has a formal membership, a formal requirement for membership, forums for participation and articulating aspirations of their communities, facilities to choose leaders by any formal process other than general and often simulated acclaim.
We have seen the transition of democratic styles in many of the world’s established democracies. The United States saw power passing from a self-nominating convention nomination process to a primary-based system that binds the convention to the choice of individual party members. This kind of a transition did not happen in India. On the other hand, we migrated from a system where parties consisted of equals sharing a common purpose and sometimes goals to one where power passed into the hands of a self-perpetuating political aristocracy. Like the Gandhis, Pawars and Thackerays.