Textbooks can and hopefully will be written about the appalling manner in which cynical political manipulation nearly succeeded in derailing the norms of governance in Maharashtra over the past few days. The comeuppance that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received with the fall of the Devendra Fadnavis government will no doubt please those who oppose India’s ruling party. However, if connivance has lost, virtue has not won.

India has had fractured verdicts in the past, though the rupture between the BJP and the Shiv Sena was an unusual one. They campaigned as allies and it was only after the results that the Shiv Sena demanded its pound of flesh. The Shiv Sena had good reason to seek real power even if the number of seats it won did not justify such a demand. As a political party, it has no future beyond Maharashtra and unless it can maintain relevance, the BJP juggernaut would crush it within two elections, if not sooner. Other allies of the BJP know that for them to play second fiddle is meaningless, unless they represent a constituency that the BJP can’t take over.

However, the Sena’s instinct to survive has led it to ally with parties that its mouthpieces have routinely ridiculed. Sharad Pawar, who has led several governments in the state, demonstrated his guile and hold over legislators, though at a cost to his reputation.

If Pawar allied with the Shiv Sena because he saw the BJP as an existential threat to India’s political norms, he could have been more explicit. Rather than a strategic step, his move seems tactical, and BJP president Amit Shah is said to be a man with a long memory. The last move in the game of chess between the two men has not been made. How sorely I miss the wit and perspicacity of Arun Sadhu, who chronicled the debasement of politics brilliantly in Mumbai Dinank and Sinhasan, later made into a film.

The Congress, which dithered over deciding whether or not to ally with the Sena, was acting at the pace of postcards in this age of Twitter and WhatsApp. However, it ultimately backed the non-BJP alliance. Allying with the Sena has political costs for it and it is not only secular-minded liberal voters who would be aghast. Minorities, religious as well as those not fluent in Marathi, have always been suspicious of the Sena and many have been victims of its street tactics. Now, they have seen the one party that, for all its flaws, stood against such bigotry, supporting it.

However, Fadnavis is hardly the martyr some are portraying him as. The BJP’s alliance with what it thought was the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was hardly principled. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the NCP in vitriolic terms in the past and this made the attempted alliance all the more piquant. More hilarious was the alacrity with which intelligence agencies concluded that Ajit Pawar, the short-lived deputy chief minister, had committed no wrong.

Finally, we come to Maharashtra’s governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari. Like several other BJP-appointed governors across the country, he seems to represent the BJP’s interests and not what constitutional norms require. He showed exemplary energy by waking up at the crack of dawn over the weekend to give Maharashtra a government that nobody elected.

This isn’t the first time that India had an election outcome where no political party gained a majority. Voters have given fractured verdicts and political history is littered with examples of legislators betraying the mandate. “Aaya Ram gaya Ram", popular short-hand for party hopping, was a unique phenomenon that began in northern India, but it spread far and wide quickly. Politicians have since learnt to game the anti-defection law.

The Maharashtra outcome is a watershed moment because it does not appear to shock anyone. The sense of resignation among many was palpable. That the BJP might form the government, though it did not have majority support, was taken as a foregone conclusion. That such manoeuvres are considered clever, shrewd, and wise and equated with the statecraft of Chanakya, thus revealing ignorance of his thinking, is worth noting. That a profoundly questionable act was not largely seen as problematic shows how amoral India’s political class has become. The hypocrisy in seeing the Sena’s alliance with Congress as heretical but the BJP tying up with Ajit Pawar as a masterstroke was clear evidence that double standards are not only tolerated in India, but even applauded depending on who adopts them.

The missing link that voters feel between their vote and the outcome, the gap between professed ideology and practical reality, and the wilful amnesia of leaders’ past words about their new allies are bewildering.

When norms are cast aside with such ease and the pursuit of power is the only objective, perhaps poetry can redeem us. As Vinda Karandikar wrote:

Jyacha paisa tyachi satta

Punha punha haj kitta

Punha punha junach svaar

Mand ghoda andh swaar

(He with money will get power

The same story repeats again

The old rider will ride again

Slow is the horse, blind the rider).

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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