Mumbai: Gift of the gab may be an asset in politics, but when it comes to speaking with forked tongues, Maharashtra’s politicians are masters of the art.

After both the ruling and opposition alliances in the state fell apart before the elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured the most number of seats, but fell short of a majority. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which it had derided as “naturally corrupt" during the campaign made a unilateral offer of support, and the government cleared the confidence motion with a contested voice vote.

Last week, this column highlighted the BJP’s double-speak in accepting NCP support. However, the BJP is hardly alone in this game.

After his initial offer of unsolicited support, NCP president Sharad Pawar said at his party’s introspection session last week that NCP had not taken up the responsibility of ensuring the government’s stability. He said if the BJP government took anti-people decisions, the NCP would protest and if it still did not mend its ways, his party would even vote against it in the assembly. Pawar’s remarks came as a surprise, especially since he had earlier cited the stability of government as the reason for supporting the Devendra Fadnavis government.

The media was quick to highlight the change in the NCP stance, pointing to the threat to the stability of the first BJP government in Maharashtra. But the very next day, Pawar watered down his own statement, saying, “We have no intention of destabilizing the Fadnavis government; I was giving a warning to the BJP government, if it touches controversial issues (read core Hindutva issues) or takes anti-people decisions, then don’t take our support for granted."

Why the overnight change in NCP stand?

The NCP has always been opposed to the BJP, calling it a communal and Brahminical outfit. Just like workers in the BJP were uncomfortable about accepting support from the NCP, workers in the NCP too were angry about propping up the BJP government. These feelings bubbled up at the NCP meeting, where former finance minister Jayant Patil, Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and legislator Jitendra Awhad raised concerns over the leadership’s decision. Though Patil and Sule later denied they were unhappy, with the decision to support BJP, it took them a full 24 hours to deny their statements.

The NCP workers’ concerns remained, and the party’s senior leader’s and Pawar’s most trusted lieutenant Praful Patel had to step in to douse fears that the party’s secular credentials were not in peril. Recalling the examples of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, Patel said these leaders’ past association with the BJP had not blemished their secular character, and hence there was nothing to worry for NCP either.

Patel’s clarification clearly indicated that Pawar’s previous statement was directed at a large number of party workers who had doubts over the decision to support the BJP.

The BJP is in a similar predicament. Much as it wants to continue running the government with minimum interference from allies, it cannot do so without support from either the Shiv Sena or the NCP. While the BJP finds Sena’s demands unreasonable, it can neither fully trust the NCP’s support, nor can it risk workers’ ire after mocking the NCP all through the campaign.

Hence the doubletalk. Both the BJP and the NCP are trying to appease their core supporters—the BJP by remaining ambivalent on accepting the NCP support, and the NCP by putting the BJP on notice.

With Shiv Sena, it gets more curious. No one knows if the flag-bearer of Marathi sub-nationalism is the BJP’s friend or foe. Sena’s member of Parliament Anant Geete is a minister in Narendra Modi’s Union cabinet while its senior leader Eknath Shinde is the leader of opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly. Moreover, it shares power with the BJP in the municipal bodies of Mumbai, Thane and Aurangabad, besides some zilla parishads.

Worsening the confusion, its leaders including party president Uddhav Thackeray have been making conflicting statements about joining the BJP government in the state.

Just like the leaderships of the BJP and the NCP, which are torn between keeping their core support base happy and playing realpolitik, the Sena leadership is too in a quandary.

The average Sena worker is upset that the BJP, which grew under the Sena’s shadow, has now dumped it and must be taught a lesson; so, he is pushing the leadership to be an aggressive opposition party. But Sena legislators are frustrated that after spending 15 years in the opposition, power is within their reach, but are forced to wait yet again.

Many blame Sena president Thackeray for the confusion. They say the party’s supremo the late Bal Thackeray would have been far more decisive in the same situation. He would have either declared his unilateral support to the BJP for the cause of Hindutva, forcing the BJP to induct its nominees in the cabinet; or he would have chosen to be in opposition and asked Geete, and mayors of various cities where Sena shares power with BJP, to quit to take the BJP head on.

Thackeray Sr. was not known for vague remarks like Uddhav Thackeray’s 18 November statement that “as long as this period of instability is not over, the Shiv Sena will perform the role of a strong opposition party in the interests of the people"—a statement which says absolutely nothing about his intentions on whether he wants Sena to remain in the opposition or join the government.

The Congress leadership, for a change, has less to worry on this front; it has no reason to indulge in this double-talk of realpolitik and can make a virtue out of necessity.

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