As Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Battle it Out for Maharashtra's Remote Control, is Alliance Heading for Choppy Waters?

File photo of NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray.

File photo of NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray.

Straws in the wind suggest a rising undercurrent of discord between the Shiv Sena and the NCP, especially on issues related to the home department.


Dhaval Kulkarni

The Thackeray family has traditionally wielded authority without being part of formal power structures.

Hence, in 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power in Maharashtra, late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray stayed away from assuming any position in the government. He instead nominated Manohar Joshi and later Narayan Rane as the chief ministers of Maharashtra.

This strategy had multiple benefits. The Shiv Sena’s first family could exercise authority sans any responsibilities. Much before Congress president Sonia Gandhi listened to her ‘inner voice’ in 2004, the Thackerays maintained an angelic halo — by portraying themselves as ones who renounced the ultimate temptation — power.

But, while nominating his party leaders as chief ministers, the Sena supremo used a term that has since embedded itself in the state’s political lexicon. Bal Thackeray said he would be the “remote control” of the regime, indicating he would call shots from outside the government.

When the Shiv Sena joined hands with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, Sena president Uddhav Thackeray made a transition into representative politics to become the chief minister. Then, it seemed that the tables had turned in favour of NCP chief Sharad Pawar.

Pawar was seen as the architect of this disparate alliance and had also staved off a short-lived rebellion by nephew Ajit Pawar, who is Uddhav’s deputy chief minister. It seemed that the remote control would now be kept at ‘Silver Oak’ at Breach Candy, which is Pawar’s residence in Mumbai.

However, two recent developments indicate that Uddhav may not be eager to part with that remote control, at least so far.

While the Congress and NCP oppose the National Population Register (NRC), Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Population Register (NPR), the Shiv Sena has supported the CAA and NPR. Reports said overlooking the opposition of the Congress and the NCP, the state government had launched preparations to implement the NPR.

Uddhav has maintained that NPR is akin to the population census that is conducted every 10 years. Speaking to the media on the issue, Pawar has acknowledged differences in the coalition but denied it would affect the fate of the government.

The second issue may create a more potent fault line for the regime.

The state government has handed over investigations into the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon violence to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) from the state police.

The case pertains to the allegedly inflammatory speeches at the ‘Elgar Parishad’ conclave at Shaniwarwada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which triggered violence the next day against Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon. Every year, on January 1, lakhs of Dalits pay their respects at the Bhima-Koregaon memorial where the largely Dalit detachment of the British Army held off a larger force of the Brahmin Peshwas in 1818.

Later, the Pune police controversially arrested Leftist and Dalit activists claiming that the Maoists had a hand in the conclave. Pawar has been openly critical of the Pune police for its handling of the probe.

While Uddhav was in favour of the probe being taken over by the NIA, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh publicly expressed his resentment about the chief minister overruling him to transfer the investigation to the central agency. Pawar has spoken of setting up a parallel Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe these cases.

On Tuesday, a carefully-worded statement by Maharashtra Congress chief and revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat has slammed the Narendra Modi-led regime for handing over the probe to the NIA.

What has set the alarm bells ringing in the NCP and the Congress are reports of two senior officials approaching the Union Home Ministry to seek that the probe be taken over by the NIA.

This was all the more pertinent as the powerful home department in Maharashtra is seen as a preserve of the NCP, which controlled it for 15 years from 1999 to 2014 when it was in power with the Congress.

In fact, Pawar’s first ministerial assignment was as minister of state for home in the Vasantrao Naik ministry in the 1970s. Compared to his party colleagues like Chhagan Bhujbal, RR Patil and Jayant Patil, who have held the portfolio in the past, Deshmukh is seen as a relatively lightweight home minister.

The NCP has earlier accused two Hindutva activists — Milind Ekbote of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi and Sambhajirao Bhide ‘Guruji’ of the Shivaprathisthan Hindustan — of being involved in the violence. NCP leaders like housing minister Jitendra Avhad have been going hammer and tongs at the Bhide-Ekbote duo.

While Ekbote comes from a family with strong roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and had contested the 2014 assembly elections from Pune as a Shiv Sena nominee, the more controversial Bhide represents a bigger predicament for the Sena.

Known for his austere lifestyle and exercise regime involving 150 suryanamaskars (sun salutations), push-ups and sit ups, the nonagenarian Bhide, a former RSS man, commands a following across Maharashtra.

Bhide’s Shivaprathistan Hindustan has a strong base in parts of Western Maharashtra. His ideological opponents grudgingly admit that his influence spans a wide expanse from Gadchiroli in Vidarbha to Sindhdurg in the Konkan, and also parts of neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Bhide is also said to be close to some Congress and NCP leaders in Sangli, where he is based.

Bhide’s emotional yet polarising personality has helped the BJP, and partly, the Shiv Sena, rally militant youth, especially those from the Bahujan communities for the cause of Hindutva.

After much drama, the Sena has snapped ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its Hindutva ally of almost three decades standing to break bread with the Congress and NCP. With the Shiv Sena finding itself at odds with the BJP, fringe Hindutva groups like those led by Bhide may be used to catch the Sena in a bind on the issue of majoritarian pride. Also, the Shiv Sena cannot be seen as being at odds with issues of Hindutva identity.

After the Bhima-Koregaon riots, Prakash Ambedkar, who is Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s grandson, had launched a statewide bandh in protest and emerged as a pan-Maharashtra leader by channelising the anger among Dalits.

In the subsequent Lok Sabha elections, Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) secured around 41 lakh votes and was blamed for the defeat of the Congress and NCP in eight seats. This included seats like Solapur and Nanded, where former chief ministers Sushilkumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan were defeated.

The NCP, which is trying to expand beyond its traditional zone of influence in the dominant Maratha-Kunbi community, is looking at tapping into an auxiliary vote base among Dalits, especially the militant Buddhist Dalits. This may explain some of Pawar’s indignation in the Bhima-Koregaon case.

Straws in the wind suggest a rising undercurrent of discord between the Shiv Sena and the NCP, especially on issues related to the home department.

So, is this sabre rattling over the NPR and Bhima-Koregaon a serious dispute between the ruling coalition? Or is it yet another example of the three parties indulging in a round of ‘noora kushti’ to satiate their respective target constituencies? Some say the truth may lie somewhere in between.

A Congress minister in the Uddhav Thackeray government recently recalled his tenure in the previous Congress-NCP dispensation. Ministers from the two parties would often be at odds and sparks would fly, almost literally, during cabinet meetings. However, eventually the two parties would make up and ensure that their government survived for another day. After all, power is a balm that can heal many differences, he noted.

Will this history repeat itself again or will the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) head for choppy waters?

(Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal).

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