Differences between the partners in the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government in the state have emerged over two recent decisions taken by chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.
Though criticism by the partners has remained subdued, the Nationalist Congress Party has left no doubt that it is unhappy with Thackeray’s moves.
Though all the three partners have been keen to proclaim publicly that there is no rift, or any danger to the coalition, both the Congress and the NCP have been getting restive at the Shiv Sena’s initiatives on key issues, on all of which the others have strong opinions.
The NCP and Congress are firmly opposed to the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act and its related processes, which includes the National Population Register drive, which begins in May. The Congress has called the NPR, the “NRC in disguise” and Thackeray too had said earlier that no citizen in Maharashtra would be affected.
A few days ago, the state government did a U-turn over its stand on the Centre’s move to have the National Investigative Agency take over the Elgar Parishad case, as part of which several activists have been held for over a year on charges of sedition.
Just before the NIA took it over, there was speculation that the accused would get bail; that was effectively stymied by the Centre.
Thackeray and the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamana, criticised the move but a few days later, agreed to hand it over to the NIA without any objection. Home minister Anil Deshmukh said he had objected to this, but had been overruled.
Last week, Thackeray called a meeting of senior bureaucrats for a briefing on the preparation of the door-to-door enumeration process under the National Population Register, which is being assumed to be a key component of the entire CAA-NRC process which has drawn massive protests all over the country. A large rally was held in Mumbai just on Saturday where speakers such as Abu Azmi, an MLA of the Samajwadi Party, declared that people not allow NPR teams to enter their homes.
— Abu Asim Azmi (@abuasimazmi) January 21, 2020
Thackeray’s open endorsement for it, after indicating he was against CAA-NRC, has upset his partners considerably. NCP chief Sharad Pawar has reportedly conveyed his displeasure to Thackeray and on Saturday, the chief minister made it a point to declare that the BJP’s attempts to destablise his government will not work.
That is not likely for now, since the local BJP is in disarray following it loss in the state elections and the clumsy attempt to form a government with NCP’s Ajit Pawar which failed spectacularly and in full public view.
It has put paid to Devendra Fadnavis’s political ambitions for now and others, like former minister Eknath Khadse, have not succeeded in stepping into the breach, though not for want of trying.
The coalition partners thus have no immediate threat from outside, but have to consolidate their own house.
The three parties come from disparate ideological backgrounds and though each one is making special efforts to make adjustments, there is discomfort in all three at having to do so with others. The NCP and the Congress have an old relationship and overlap on broad issues, but the latter is always wary of Sharad Pawar. The Congress, also, is deeply uncomfortable of supping with the Sena, while within the latter, many influential leaders would rather be back with the BJP.
All three are in an arrangement of mutual benefit, but each knows of the innate problems of such a coalition.
Still, with considerable goodwill and with a common goal of keeping the BJP out, it is likely that they will stick together for the time being. Many observers feel that if they can continue with minimal hiccups for at least two years, they could make a big difference. The social atmosphere has certainly improved and the public protests, which have been held without much problems is a refreshing breath of fresh air in comparison with other BJP ruled states where governments have reacted against protestors with ferocity.
The Shiv Sena is also watching Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena closely.
After attacking Narendra Modi bitterly during the run up to the May 2019 generation elections, Raj has now gone full saffron, even changing his multi-coloured flag to that colour. He has begun talking in public about Hindutva and his party’s latest vigilante action against Muslims in the northern Mumbai suburbs where residents were asked for their citizenship documents, has set alarm bells ringing.
Uddhav Thackeray, who is aware that many of his followers are pro-Modi and pro-Hindutva, could be worried that his cousin will woo away such partymen. That has to be nipped in the bud and the chief minister’s pro-NPR announcement could be to pre-empt any bid by Raj to criticise the state government.
The coalition partners have so far ensured that any disagreement between the three does not get out of hand – statements are quickly issued to express unity.
But this is no permanent solution – unless there is complete agreement on key policy issues such as the NPR, the differences could tear the coalition apart. The next few months will be crucial.