Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton.
I was attempting to explain the recent, messy Maharashtra imbroglio to my English friend, John. He lives in London and travels frequently to Mumbai and Delhi. He is something of an Indophile. We were chatting on WhatsApp, and he was posing some awkward questions on the murky, political goings-on in India’s richest state. One of the problems of long distance conversations is that you cannot always find the right words, particularly when your friend has been following the Indian political scene closely. He is well prepared, shooting from the hip, and I am respondng on the hoof as it were, trying not to sound like an ignoramus. To obviate this problem I suggested we ‘type chat’ over Skype or some such, giving me time to frame considered responses. John thought it was a sound idea. So there we were, tapping away furiously on our keypads. I had made a decent fist of educating my friend on the rapidly shifting political sands that we have been wallowing in with voyeuristic delight these past few weeks.
John – ‘I say, old fruit. Can you put me wise on what exactly has happened in the just concluded Maharashtra assembly elections? I got the gist, that no single party won an absolute majority. That the pre-poll alliance of the BJP and the Shiv Sena came a cropper and all hell broke loose. To start with, why did the alliance go kaput?’
SS – ‘One word. Greed. I can add more words. Naked, self-serving ambition. The whole shebang was about sharing the Chief Minister’s post over the five year tenure. The minor player in this dodgy coalition Shiv Sena, claimed the BJP had promised two-and-a-half years of the CM’s seat to them. The BJP said “balderdash”, or words to that effect. The long and short of it was the BJP told the Shiv Sena to take a long walk off a short pier.’
John – ‘And I understand the Shiv Sena supremo, Uddhav Thackeray wanted his son to be the Chief Minister during their period of ascension to the throne.’
SS – ‘That is correct, but the young man is barely out of his teens, completely wet behind the ears. It was an absurd demand. All that, however, was neither here nor there. The BJP firmly refused to entertain the idea of a split Chief Ministership, never mind if their alliance partner’s candidate was a gnarled veteran or a baby in swaddling clothes. Devendra Fadnavis, the erstwhile and incumbent CM made it clear he will take some shifting. In short, we had what you Brits call an impasse. They tried to stare each other down, but to no avail.’
John – ‘That much even I could follow. It’s what came after, that was baffling. It would appear that the Shiv Sena now started talking to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) to forge a workable alliance with a view to government formation. Which would have left the single largest party, the BJP, high and dry. Incidentally, can you tell me the difference between the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress?’
SS – ‘Good question, John. The NCP is a breakaway group from the INC and was formed in 1999 under the leadership of Sharad Pawar. They were booted out from the apex Congress Party.’
John – ‘Pawar. Hmm. The same guy who was the Chief of the International Cricket Council some years ago?’
SS – ‘The very same.’
John – ‘My word. He does get around. From politics to cricket?’
SS – ‘In India, politics is cricket and cricket is politics. Most of our leading politicians have a finger or two in India’s massive cricket pie. And do you know why this Sharad Pawar-led rebel group was expelled from the INC? Because they objected to Italian-born Sonia Gandhi being made head of the party! Now it’s all hunky-dory and they are back together again.’
John – ‘Mamma mia, that’s rich. So both the INC and NCP came from the same Congress stable, split up acrimoniously and have joined forces in a Faustian pact with their perennial bête noire the Shiv Sena? Just to keep the BJP at bay?’
SS – ‘That’s about the size of it. You might call it “an unholy congress.”’
John – ‘I might indeed. I have another query. The Shiv Sena are, if anything, even more rabidly pro-Hindu than is attributed to the BJP, and by definition, anti-Muslim. They did not even allow the Pakistan cricket team to play in Mumbai. So how come this sudden bonhomie and keenness to make nice with the supposedly more egalitarian parties like the two Congresses?’
SS – ‘Wah, wah! You have certainly boned up on the political landscape in India. The only answer to that question is that politics makes strange bedfellows. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that sort of rot. Mao Zedong said “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but in India “Power grows out of the slit of a ballot box.”’
John – ‘I can see that plenty of puns and jokes on the “Pawar” name (Pawar Play, Pawar hungry, Sharad Power etc.) are doing the rounds in your social media circles, with ‘horse trading’ an oft repeated term. A gross insult to our equine chums. Which brings me to the other Pawar. Ajit, Sharad’s nephew. What the hell was he up to with all his “Spy vs Spy” shenanigans?’
SS – ‘Yes, John. We are now approaching the climax of this amazing real life soap opera which kept the whole country glued to their televisions sets. What followed was mind boggling. Ajit Pawar, who is (was) the head of NCP’s legislature, in what seemed a kamikaze act, ups and runs to the BJP with a list of signatures from a majority of the members of his party, supposedly swearing allegiance to a newly forged BJP – NCP alliance. In return for this munificence, he is awarded the post of Dy. CM under CM Fadnavis.’
John – ‘Goodness me, real cloak and dagger stuff.’
SS – ‘You had better believe it. Party members from the BJP and the NCP are roused from their beds even before the break of dawn and rushed to the Governor’s residence at the imperially splendiferous Raj Bhavan. The poor Governor’s beauty sleep was ruined as well. Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar are sworn in as CM and Dy. CM respectively. The nation woke up to this unreal reality, flabbergasted. Those of us who saw it first on our mobile internet, were convinced this was fake news. We should have known our politicians better.’
John – ‘And, as I saw these bizarre events unfolding, with MLAs being herded from hotel to hotel in luxury buses, there was a further twist to the tale, yes?’
SS – ‘Absolutely, John. To cut a long story short. Ajit Pawar had clearly taken Fadnavis and the BJP for a jolly good ride. Sharad Pawar and the rest of the family shed crocodile tears on Ajit’s shoulders and this oleaginous man melted, resigned from his newly appointed post, and slunk back to the NCP fold. All was forgiven. Leaving the BJP red faced. At which point, CM Fadnavis had to put in his papers as well. To his credit, Fadnavis served Maharashtra well during his 5 years and 3-day tenure.’
John – ‘All rather nefarious. As you say, this one beats all soap operas. So now we have the two Congresses who could not stand the sight of each other, and the Shiv Sena who cannot stand the sight of anyone other than themselves, who are all ideologically violently opposed, getting together to form a government. The Sena gets the plum CM’s post and together this bizarre troika cock their snooks at the BJP.’
SS – ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself, John. The BJP are left to lick their wounds, but as they say, beware the wounded lion. They could have held the high moral ground by abstaining. Alas, greed and unwonted naivety won out. We have not heard the last of this saga. 5 years is a long time in politics. Expect action in just a few months from now. Watch this space. The long and short of it is that no one came out of this smelling of roses. More like horse manure. There has been no winner.’
John – ‘One last thing. Who is this Chanakya character everyone in India talks about?’
SS – ‘Ah. The original Chanakya (371 BC – 283 BC), the author of the definitive Arthashastra and the original master of statecraft, is our equivalent of the scheming Machiavelli, who famously said, ‘Politics have (sic)* no relation to morals.’ Chanakya was a master strategist and manipulator. In the present context, there are many claimants to the nom de guerre ‘the modern Chanakya.’ Sharad Pawar and Amit Shah to name but two pretenders, with the former presently leading by a short head.’
John – ‘Tell you what. I thought British politics right now was getting pretty confusing, what with Boris (Johnson), Jeremy (Corbyn), Brexit and the forthcoming general elections. But when it comes to political chicanery, India stands alone.’
SS – ‘We had good teachers, John. The British taught us for 250 years. Rubs off. Good night, John.
John – ‘Touché and good night.’
*For the pedantic, I have inserted a (sic) because Machiavelli’s exact quote, ‘Politics have no relation to morals’ sounds wrong, as opposed to ‘Politics has no relation to morals.’ However, grammarians aver that in the quoted context, ‘have’ is more correct than ‘has’. I am sticking to my guns.