Almost more squalid than the squalid shenanigans in Maharashtra last week is the casual manner in which we have accepted this new normal. It no longer surprises us that our elected representatives betray the people’s mandate by switching sides midstream. It no longer surprises us that when a plot forms to bring down a government, those elected by some of the poorest people in India should luxuriate for several days in five-star hotels and travel in private jets. Why are we no longer shocked by the amorality that has come to characterise our political culture? Why does the Election Commission not ask some questions?
It is vital that questions start being asked. Or there is not the smallest hope that in this ‘new India’, the worst habits and practices of that old India will end. And it must. We badly need a political culture that is not defined by cynicism, corruption, and chicanery. It is no small thing for the government of one of our most important states to be brought down before it has completed its term. But after we saw what happened in Madhya Pradesh and Goa, our sensibilities have got numbed.
The news channels covered last week’s events as if we were witnessing a cricket match, not a political crisis. Breathless reporters followed the main characters around, sticking microphones in their faces and demanding to know the score. ‘The numbers? What are the numbers?’ Then, exactly like a cricket team would pose after winning a match, Eknath Shinde and his gang of rebels posed for a group photo at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Guwahati. They travelled there on chartered flights from a luxury resort in Surat in the dead of the night. When they were spotted at Surat airport and TV reporters tried to fling the ‘numbers, numbers’ questions at the rebel Shiv Sena MLAs, they were shooed away by Gujarat policemen. Why the secrecy? Why the need to be confined to hotel rooms? Why the need for the BJP to deny involvement in the whole murky scheme, when its fingerprints are so clearly visible?
The mastermind of the whole sordid saga is Maharashtra’s former Chief Minister, who has been trying to bring down Uddhav Thackeray’s government from the day it was formed. It is hard to say for certain why the Shiv Sena chose not to stick with the BJP after contesting the 2019 Assembly elections as a coalition. But rumour has it that there was an understanding that the Chief Minister after this second electoral victory would be from the Shiv Sena. Devendra Fadnavis was so desperate not to lose his job that he tried to hang on by persuading Ajit Pawar to be sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister with himself as Chief Minister in a very irregular, pre-dawn ceremony. Uncle Sharad was not having any of this, so Fadnavis was CM for just three days.
Undeterred by this failed attempt to grab power, Fadnavis has continued with his mission to get his job back. When two sadhus were killed by villagers in Palghar, the incident was used to accuse Uddhav Thackeray of not speaking out loudly enough for Hindutva. It is the Hindutva card that has remained in play. It has been used by Shiv Sena rebels as a reason to rebel. Ostensibly with the pious aim to keep Balasaheb Thackeray’s ‘legacy’ alive by partnering with a political party that has shining Hindutva credentials, instead of battered secular ones. It sounds like no more than a last-minute excuse for breaking a political party and bringing down a government.
Personally, I am no fan of the Shiv Sena. Its political ideology has no appeal for me, and its resort to violence at the smallest provocation appals me. But as someone who lives in Mumbai, I am forced to concede that Uddhav ran a reasonably competent government. His handling of the pandemic has earned him praise across the country and Mumbai has come back to life and commerce with remarkable speed. It has also been something of an interesting political lesson to observe how the Shiv Sena’s rougher edges have softened because of its alliance with two secular political parties.
It is hard, before the deadline of this column, to predict what will happen now. What can be said and what needs to be said is that we must start demanding an end to a political culture that damages not just governments but India.
It is disheartening to watch the worst habits of the Congress party, especially of Indira Gandhi, being embraced by the BJP, especially when the Prime Minister loses no chance to remind us that we live in a ‘new India’ in which the motto is ‘reform, perform, transform’. The words rhyme neatly but they remain meaningless as long as the BJP continues to keep alive a political culture that was despicable even in the ‘old India’.
Frankly what puzzles me is why the BJP is so keen to grab power in states where it fails to win elections. Why does it not concentrate instead on reforming, performing, and transforming in states that it already rules, so that it will be easier to win elections in states that have given some other political formation a mandate to govern? If BJP chief ministers could show that they are much better at governance than others, voters in other states would willingly choose them.