One Year of the Maha Vikas Aghadi: Hits, Misses and 'Vendetta Politics'

Once allies, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have been engaged in a bitter tussle for the past year on issues such as the Aarey metro car shed, the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of Sushant Singh Rajput.

Mumbai: On December 17, 2019, less than three weeks after the MahaVikas Aghadi (MVA) – a tri-party government led by the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress – had formed the government in Maharashtra after defeating the BJP at its own game, the leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis made a dramatic entry into the Vidhan Bhavan in Nagpur.

He, along with his elected party MLAs, walked in with a long banner with an article printed by the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana on it. Only a month prior to that, the Shiv Sena had demanded Rs 25,000 per hectare as compensation to farmers whose lands were sought to be taken over by the BJP-led government. Fadnavis decided this was the moment for the BJP to get back at the newly formed government, with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray as the chief minister.

As soon as the BJP MLAs tried to display the banner to Thackeray and the state’s finance minister Jayant Patil asked Sena to fulfil the demand, the Sena MLAs tried to snatch the banner. As an altercation broke out between the MLAs of the Sena and BJP, the speaker of the assembly Nana Patole had to adjourn the house for over 30 minutes. When the house re-assembled, the BJP continued with its protest. The house had to be adjourned for the day. This was the beginning of the direct confrontations between the BJP and the Sena, parties that previously had a bittersweet relationship but had stuck together for close to three decades in the state.

Ever since, the opposition has left no stone unturned, bickering over the ways in which the sitting government has led the state, attacking it at every opportunity available. The MVA too has systematically undone several decisions that were crucial for the past BJP government, more particularly for Fadnavis. By doing so, the war between the BJP and Sena has only intensified.

Also read: The Maha Vikas Aghadi Could Liberate Shiv Sena and Maharashtra

Here are some of the highlights of what the MahaVikas Aghadi’s first year in the government looked like.

Restoration of Aarey forest:

As soon as Uddhav Thackeray took charge as the chief minister, he announced: “not a leaf will be cut in Aarey”. His statement was in response to the earlier government’s hasty decision through an “over-night operation” to chop off more than 2,000 trees in Aarey forest to make way for a metro car shed. The Fadnavis government’s vision to connect the western Mumbai suburbs through a metro line needed sacrificing the densely forested Aarey colony area, perhaps the last existing green patch in the city.

This decision, however, was met with aggressive protests by green activists from across the city. Multiple petitions were filed in both the Bombay high court and the Supreme Court seeking the Adivasi community’s right over their traditional land, and implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The protestors had also raised concerns over the catastrophic impact on the climate and loss to the state’s biodiversity that the decision to chop the trees would cause.

Activists protest against cutting down of trees for the proposed metro car shed at Aarey Colony in Mumbai, October 6, 2019. Photo: PTI Photo

In October last year, when the Fadnavis government ordered the slaughter of the forest, thousands of protestors poured on the street. The Mumbai police had responded aggressively, registering an FIR against 29 persons, mostly students and green activists.

Thackeray’s son Aaditya had supported the protestors and loudly announced the party’s stand. “If Sena comes to power, Aarey forest will be saved,” he said on several occasions. And as soon as the Sena-led government came into power, and Aaditya Thackeray was elected as the environment minister, the party decided to withdraw the cases. Last month, the government finally decided to shift the metro car shed from the Aarey forest to Kanjurmarg. The decision, however, has been halted by the Central government claiming ownership over the 102-acre land in Kanjurmarg.

COVID- 19 and Uddhav Thackeray

Even before the newly formed government could entirely take charge, the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc across the country. Maharashtra – and particularly Mumbai – were worst hit and saw an exponential rise in infections and deaths, far more than other states. Even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown, Thackeray had urged residents of Maharashtra to stay indoors. “This is a different type of war going on. This is a war against virus,” he had announced.

Also read: Uddhav Thackeray Vs Mohan Bhagwat: A Tale of Two Dussehra Orations

As cases grew steadily across the country, in Maharashtra they seemed to multiply. Unlike other states, there were several factors working against the state administration in curbing the rise. Population density, the influx of migrant population and the sheer unpreparedness to handle something so humongous made the task challenging for the Thackeray government. And this gave the BJP an opportunity to hit out at the government. The people of the state are paying a heavy price because of the government’s poor response to the health crisis, Fadnavis said, days within the outbreak of the pandemic.

From testing patterns to resources made available to the health workers, Fadnavis was at the forefront of criticising the government. Several senior state and national BJP leaders even demanded the deployment of the army, specifically in the slums of Dharavi and Govandi in Mumbai. The party’s bot army was let loose on social media, and some – including BJP Rajya Sabha member Narayan Rane – even ran a campaign demanding president’s rule in the state.

The pandemic coincided with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz, where travellers from across 35 countries had come for the annual event. Since a few Tablighi members had tested positive for the virus, the Central government, several BJP ministers and leaders hastened to communalise the pandemic. Similar efforts were made in Maharashtra as well. Surprisingly, the Sena, which is otherwise known for its “pro-Hindutva stand” and which doesn’t miss out on opportunities to communalise any crisis situation, decided to act otherwise.

People stand in queue to visit a doctors clinic to get a medical certificate, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, at Dharavi in Mumbai, Sunday, May 3, 2020. Photo: PTI

In each of his pre-recorded video messages streamed across social media platforms, Thackeray uncharacteristically used stern language against those who were attempting to give a communal twist to the ‘corona crisis’ and were circulating incendiary content on social media. For a party which had long been accused of indulging in anti-minority violence, this was a significant and a welcoming shift.

Fadnavis even urged his party workers – and even ordinary children – across the state to hold black placards and wear masks of the same colour to protest against the state’s inadequacies. The protest, however, boomeranged. Hashtags like #MaharashtraDrohiBJP soon began to trend on social media. The NCP also launch a counter-attack on the saffron party, with its party leaders claiming the BJP was committing “treason” with Maharashtra by attacking the government during a crisis.

Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the rise of Arnab Goswami, Kangana Ranaut as “voices of the opposition”

On June 14, Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. His body was found hanging from the ceiling of his residence in Mumbai. The untimely, tragic death of a promising actor had within no time become a political matter, with right-wing actors jumping into the fray, attacking and distorting the Maharashtra state government’s effort to investigate the “real cause” of his death.

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Rajput’s father K.K. Singh filed an FIR in Patna, his hometown, allowing the Bihar police to investigate a case of alleged abetment to suicide even as the Mumbai police was probing the actor’s death. Rajput’s family accused his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty of “pushing him” to end his life. A tussle between the police forces of the two states ensued, in view of which the Bihar government demanded a CBI probe in the matter. The Centre swiftly approved the transfer of the case to the CBI without considering the merits of the case. Chakraborty faced a ‘media trial’ and was sent to jail (for alleged consumption of drugs) and was vilified across most news and social media platforms.

Not just the state BJP leaders and right-wing supporters, but several national leaders also criticised the Maharashtra government for its apparent “failure” in handling the investigation. In no time, Rajput’s death had manifested itself into a matter of “Bihari pride” and the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) had both stoked public sentiment over Rajput’s death. This was seen as an attempt to dodge the criticisms that the state government faced of mishandling the migrant worker crisis.

Umesh Kumar Ray, in his piece for The Wire, had reported that the BJP’s arts and culture wing had released masks and stickers bearing photographs of the late actor along with the hashtag ‘JusticeforSushantSinghRajput’. The banner bore an emotive slogan in Hindi: “Na bhule hai, na bhulne denge (Neither have we forgotten nor will we let it be forgotten).”

Sushant Singh Rajput’s aides stage a demonstration demanding justice for the late actor, outside the airport in New Delhi, October 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

The opposition’s attempt to politicise any issue is a common phenomenon, and the BJP was only sticking to its script – malign the state dispensation at any cost. However, what stuck out like a sore thumb was the social media campaign led by Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut and the theatrics of the Republic TV channel.

Ranaut equated the Maharashtra government to the “Taliban” and said that Mumbai felt like “Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir”. She even trained her guns at Aaditya Thackeray, accusing him of hanging out with the “Bollywood mafia”, “murderers of Rajput” and “drug syndicates”.

In response to Ranaut’s high-decibel criticism of the government, the Mumbai municipal corporation bulldozed her Mumbai office for alleged irregularities. A private complaint was moved in a local court, leading to sedition charges (section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code) against the actress and her sister Rangoli Chandel. The sisters have moved the Bombay high court seeking its withdrawal.

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While the state did not directly attack Republic TV founder Arnab Goswami for his channel’s reporting of Rajput’s death, Goswami was recently arrested in a 2018 abetment to suicide case. Goswami was kept at the Taloja central prison for six days before the Supreme Court ordered his release. Goswami alleged that it was an attempt to muzzle his freedom of expression. The state, however, claimed they had merely re-opened an old case that was earlier closed by the Raigad police during Fadnavis’s tenure.

Maharashtra governor or BJP spokesperson?

From swiftly swearing-in Devendra Fadnavis as the chief minister and Ajit Pawar as his deputy on November 23 last year (a government that lasted less than 80 hours) to openly furthering the BJP’s agenda, governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari has made it amply clear where his allegiance lies. He has been accused of being a “BJP man” rather than performing the functions of the office he holds.

In the past year, Koshayari has continued to spar with the Thackeray government. Among his most recent attacks is his letter to Thackeray over the delay in reopening places of worship amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Koshyari asked Thackeray, “Have you suddenly turned secular, the term you hated?”

Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, Speaker Nana Patole and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari at the Vidhan Bhavan. Photo: PTI

With Maharashtra having the highest cases of the coronavirus infection and new cases not receding, Thackeray decided to keep the temples in the state shut. He had said that temples would see large gatherings of people, which increases the risk of the disease spreading. Koshyari, however, targeted the Maharashtra chief minister for this decision, saying while even bars and restaurants have been opened, temples haven’t been allowed to.

Koshyari’s letter to the chief minister had surprised many, including NCP chief Sharad Pawar, prompting him to shoot a letter to PM Modi expressing “shock” over the language used by the governor while addressing the chief minister. Pawar said he was “pained” by the erosion of standards of conduct by the high constitutional office of the governor.

Also read: The Constitutional Puppet on a String

“Unfortunately, Hon. Governor’s letter to the Chief Minister invokes the connotation as if written to the leader of a political party. I firmly believe that in a democracy, the free exchange of views between the Hon. Governor and the Hon. Chief Minister must take place. However, the tone and tenor used must always be in keeping with the stature of the constitutional post occupied by the individuals,” Pawar had written in his letter.