In a paper published in the journal Polity in 1989, political scientist Julie Mostov argued that Karl Marx was actually a socialist democrat and his writings “rest on a notion of democracy in which individuals cooperate freely and equally in the process of governing”. Marx also said political crises tend to clear blurred political lines and bring opposing political forces together.
Something of both has happened in Maharashtra over the past month and perhaps led to a paradigm shift in Indian politics. The needle had already shifted somewhat last year when the then Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu quit the NDA government at the Centre to strike out on his own. He then said that the BJP’s attempt to promote the current chief minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy and his party was one of the main reasons for his TDP’s exit. But it was not quite as simple as that. Jagan is likely to face the same situation eventually.
The Telugu Desam was born out of sub-nationalism when in 1982, the reigning Telugu film star N T Rama Rao saw on television how Rajiv Gandhi, the then Congress general secretary and son of PM Indira Gandhi, dismissed in cavalier fashion Andhra Pradesh’s CM T Anjaiah who wanted to greet him with flowers. Rajiv did not even cast a glance at the CM as he deplaned and walked straight ahead towards officials after landing at the Hyderabad airport—leaving Anjaiah, a puppet in any case, looking forlorn and woebegone. It was an assertion of Telugu pride that prompted NTR to set up a party called Telugu Desam—the very name was assertive of that pride and evoked a sub-nationalism that had already risen in India with the establishment of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, among others.
Most other regional, sub-nationalistic parties, including the Asom Gana Parishad, that rose out of an anti-Bengali domination sentiment in Assam, used the democratic process to come to power in their respective states within five years of their establishment. It took the Shiv Sena nearly 30 years to do the same because after the early success of its sub-nationalistic aim of securing jobs and housing for locals in a city (Bombay) dominated by rich Gujarati Hindu, Marwari, Sindhi, Jain, Parsi and Bohra Muslim entrepreneurs (incidentally almost all of them migrants from neighbouring Gujarat), Bal Thackeray lost sight of the aspirations of the Maharashtrian people.
Taking advantage of the rising mood in the country against appeasement of Muslims and in alliance with the BJP, Thackeray shifted to a sharp and often vicious and violent Hindutva plank. For the first time in 1995, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and the riots that followed in Bombay, the Shiv Sena rode to power in the state, riding piggyback on the BJP. Since then, however, the BJP, with various changes of leadership, has sharpened its Hindutva rhetoric and with the departure of the charismatic Bal Thackeray, began to subsume the Shiv Sena’s identity.
That was the major reason—all other issues including insistence on rotational chief ministership were red herrings—why Bal Thackeray’s son and heir Uddhav Thackeray, now sworn in as the CM of Maharashtra, resisted the BJP soon after it became apparent that the party would not be able to form a government in the state on its own. Regional parties like the Telugu Desam and the Akali Dal may or may not be able to hold on to their distinct sub-nationalistic identities in the face of a resurgent BJP. But the Shiv Sena, playing as the B team of the BJP, would have been demolished if it had followed in the national party’s footsteps without a distinct culture of its own.
Similar was the case with the NCP, and Uddhav would not have been able to pull it off without the active support and advice of Sharad Pawar. Even the NCP was in an existentialist crisis after the BJP tried to diminish the support base of the party by poaching most of the sugar barons (those with cooperative empires including banks, dairy farms and sugar factories) who were the foundation of Pawar’s party. In this round of the battle against a party (BJP) that follows the principle of ‘take no prisoners, yield no ground’, it is Pawar who evoked cultural sub-nationalism—Marathas have never ceded to the Delhi Sultanate, he said, and spoke against majoritarian nationalism to outwit the BJP and ensure a government of three parties battling for their survival. Even the Congress, which did not have much of a role to play in this drama except follow Pawar like a lamb, was in an existential crisis.
Allying with a party which, of late, had gone as saffron as the BJP was the lesser of the two evils. In the fight for survival, all three parties believe they can retain their identities and party bases only in alliance with each other. The Shiv Sena could not have done so in partnership with the BJP, and the Congress-NCP would have otherwise been decimated in their core cooperative sector by the BJP in the next five years.
So they felt obliged to no one in coming together—even the Shiv Sena that was in a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. Like Marx said, the political lines between them have blurred in their hour of crisis. Uddhav might find it difficult to defend his abandonment of Hindutva even as the Congress-NCP justify their alliance with the statement that the Sena only went saffron in the company of the BJP. But they will all live to tell the tale as they would not have without their alliance—that is the bottomline.
Senior journalist and political commentator