The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

What Does the Maharashtra Crisis Mean for India’s Ruling Party?

Is the Bharatiya Janata Party not as invulnerable as once thought?

Krzysztof Iwanek
What Does the Maharashtra Crisis Mean for India’s Ruling Party?
Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

In recent weeks, the Indian state of Maharashtra witnessed a political rollercoaster of unexpected events and u-turns that would make the writers of House of Cards gasp. At the end of the day, the tussle left India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) weakened, as it not only lost power in the state, but also lost its ideologically closest ally.

I have no intention to cover these developments here – journalists in Maharashtra have already done so much better. It has been also described for The Diplomat here. It suffices to say that the BJP could not settle for the terms of joint rule with its regional partner, the Shiv Sena (SHS). In the end, the ally crossed over to the rivals’ camp, forming a government with another regional party (Nationalist Congress Party, NCP) and a national one (the Indian National Congress or Congress, the BJP’s principal opponent).

The populous state 0f Maharashtra has the second-biggest number of legislators in the Indian Parliament. It is also one of the top FDI recipients across all Indian states, and its capital is no other city but Mumbai, the financial nerve center of the country. The loss of this state is thus certainly a huge setback for the BJP. So is the loss of Shiv Sena, which was one of the few really valuable components of the BJP’s alliance. In case Modi’s party in the future will not be able to jump over the majority bar alone after national elections, the lack of the SHS’ support will be felt acutely. But the current drama is rather far from a major political breakthrough – for several reasons.

First, the BJP is still the mightiest party in India by far. It continues to rule the country on the federal level (and in 16 states); its machinery is well-oiled by a stream of financing incomparable to what other political entities possess.

Second, the Shiv Sena’s shift was not a change of ideological heart, but a turn taken due to pure power politics; just as it abandoned the BJP, it may return.

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Third, in Maharashtra the incumbent BJP has gained the biggest number of seats – 105 of 288 elected seats (followed by SHS with 56, the NCP with 54 and Congress with 44). Thus, it had scored a better result than the two opposition parties together. Had it not been for the internal alliance tussle between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, the opposition parties would have been in no position to form a government.

Fourth, the BJP lost its ally because it was growing stronger in Maharashtra (throughout the last 10 years, not during these elections), not because it has become too weak. The Shiv Sena was one of the oldest auxiliary forces in the BJP’s small army of parties, the National Democratic Alliance. It was also the only one that to a degree shared the colors of the same ideology – Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism – with the BJP. At the same time, Shiv Sena remains entrenched in regional identity politics of Maharashtra, where the BJP has a rising presence as well. The parties cooperated on both the national and the state level, but as the BJP’s outreach on the latter plane kept growing, they were bound to compete as well.

This is a paradox of alliances – they are best kept together by ideology, but this also means that the more like-minded they are, the more allies may be competing for the same electorate. The BJP and the SHS did not field candidates against each other, but still the rise of the popularity of one is a cause of concern for the other, as Shiv Sena gradually found itself in a weaker position to dictate their bilateral rules of power sharing. In the 2004 and 2009 state elections, it was the SHS that had a larger vote share than the BJP (2004: BJP – 13 percent; SHS – nearly 20 percent; 2009: BJP – 14 percent; SHS – 16 percent). In the last two ones, however, the BJP has jumped over its ally, turning from a junior partner to a senior one (2004: BJP – 27 percent; SHS – 19 percent; 2019: BJP – 25 percent, SHS – 16 percent). In hindsight, it is not surprising that signs of friction between them were also visible after the previous assembly elections of 2014, when the BJP overtook the Shiv Sena in terms of vote share for the first time. But there are no other allies with whom the BJP would compete so closely in terms of ideologically rhetoric.

Fifth, the Congress-NCP-SHS alliance is on a shaky ground from the very start and there is no telling how long it will last. The Shiv Sena’s crossing over is also a mix of a blessing and a curse for the anti-BJP camp. Many politicians and voters of that side are unhappy with the fact that they now have to support a party that so far spoke the BJP’s language and in the past was known for its sons-of-the-soil rhetoric and violent actions.

Sixth, the same combination of major parties that could beat the BJP does not exist on the national level. The brutal logic of the first-past-the-post system is that in case there are no two parties of similar capabilities one each side, the smaller parties on one side must join forces to face the large one, otherwise many of the votes cast on them are wasted. This is theoretically possible, as it happened in India’s past as well: for instance, in 1977, when various parties came together to beat the Indian National Congress, once supreme nearly all over the country,

But the paradox of alliances is that while it is not easy to share an ideology with political partners during the election campaign, it is also hard to keep an alliance coherent without any ideology (or at least a common agenda) while running the government. Similar ideas and electorates caused the the BJP and SHS to both cooperate and compete, but as of now the other camp – the Congress and its allies – does not have an ideology worth the name at all. As of 2019, its agenda boils down to be anti-Modi and anti-BJP, and it is not even coherent in the latter endeavor. And if history served good references here, let us not forget how the 1977 victory ended for India’s united opposition – in a spectacular fall of the government two years later, when it turned out that a patch-up coalition build with a sole purpose of defeating the dominant party was unable to keep its cohesion and destroyed itself through internal tussles.

The Maharashtra crisis has weakened the BJP, but it did not strengthen the national opposition. With the Shiv Sena’s future position remaining uncertain, the anti-BJP forces has not moved closer to the goal of building a broad coalition for the 2024 national elections.