Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Speaker Nana Patole and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari at Vidhan Bhavan for the Assembly session in Mumbai on December 1, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

In the early 1960s, when Bal Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, with Bombay as its centre, it was with the intention of breaking the Communist Party’s control over the trade unions. Thackeray’s party with its sons of the soil politics, which argued for affirmation and representation of the native Marathi in administration, employment, and politics did not shy of unleashing terror — the party’s emblem is the tiger — when it suited him. India’s financial capital worked or slept to his whim.

Thackeray died in 2012. The mantle of the Marathi manoos (man) was passed down to Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aditya Thackeray. All through six decades of its existence, the Shiv Sena has been hyper-patriotic in local issues — it promotes the mythology and lore of the 17th century Maratha emperor Shivaji Maharaj, who fought and defeated the Adishahi sultanate — and never in their most tolerant dreams secular. Their natural, ideological ally has been the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party].

But as of Saturday, when Uddhav Thackeray proved in the Maharashtra assembly his alliance’s strength (169 members in a 288-strong house) and became the chief minister, he formally parted ways with the BJP.

The final result, an administration led by a fundamentally fascist party (Shiv Sena) and supported by Sharad Pawar, whose politics always has been that of expediency, and the Congress, which continues to make regular liberal, secular noises, is no less bizarre a product than the chimera-like processes that preceded it.

- C.P. Surendran, senior Indian journalist

He is supported by Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party and Sonia Gandhi’s Indian National Congress party. The Shiv Sena in effect has quit local, native politics and has become absorbed, for reasons of survival, into the national, mainstream current. It now stands to lose its identity as a local party. The tiger has turned vegetarian.

Last fortnight Indian politics as mirrored in the Mumbai events not only showed Sena’s rather suspect secular stripes. It also showed that Indian democracy is elastic and flexible to the point of being a meaningless concept; an unwashed garment that could be shrunk or stretched to fit any body size.

In October, when the assembly election results were announced, the Shiv Sena and the BJP alliance was still working. But the results (BJP: 105, Shiv Sena: 56, Congress: 44, Nationalist Congress Party: 54, Other parties: 16, Independents: 13) made it clear that the BJP was a little more dependent on the Shiv Sena than was the case during the assembly elections five years before, when they had a similar understanding.

Sharad Pawar, a Maharashtra strongman, characteristic of his epic cunning, did his all to widen the gap between the BJP’s lip and the cup, till it became a yawning rift. He brought around his party and the Congress party to his view. The three formed an alliance to share the power, isolating the BJP. But not before the outgoing BJP chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis stuck up a friendship with one of the state’s most unscrupulous politicians, Ajit Pawar, the nephew of Sharad Pawar.

With the help of the centre and many midnight mal-administrations to the Constitution, the two were sworn in as chief and deputy chief minister. The idea was Ajit Pawar would split the National Congress Party down in the middle and bring in enough MLAs to support a Fadnavis government.

The condition was that Amit Shah’s Home Ministry would call off inquiries into a massive irrigation scam when Ajit Pawar was a minister in the state cabinet years ago. The BJP carried out its end of the bargain. But as soon as they did it, by design or accident, Sharad Pawar brought both his nephew and his breakaway faction back into the fold. And that was the end of the Fadnavis farce. It lasted three days. And no one still knows if Ajit Pawar’s act of treason was staged on his own to get the cases off his back, or whether Sharad Pawar engineered the feint.

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Since almost all of this — calculations, miscalculations, recalculations — was being done in full public view before some sort of stability was achieved in government formation, the crassness and the corruption of the show left no room for the imagination.

The final result, an administration led by a fundamentally fascist party (Shiv Sena) and supported by Sharad Pawar, whose politics always has been that of expediency, and the Congress, which continues to make regular liberal, secular noises, is no less bizarre a product than the chimera-like processes that preceded it.

The sobering lesson from the recent crash course in Maharashtra politics is that in the Indian brand of democracy pretty much anything goes. One always suspected that to be the case. But now one knows it for certain.

This may not be the nadir though. But the bottom can’t be much farther. All around, the evidence mounts. And it is not limited to politics. The Indian economy, despite tall claims to the contrary, is failing. The GDP has fallen below 4.5 per cent, the lowest in the last six years, and even these figures may be fudged. Employment and manufacture continue to be down. The Modi government is desperate for distraction. A war, at least a border skirmish, would be helpful. Or a new, gigantic statue. Or, perhaps, the resignation of Nirmala Sitharaman, the minister for finance. Whatever it is, a spectacle is in order. And it will come.

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India