Column | Can Shinde hope to call the shots in Maharashtra?

Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis address a press conference, in Mumbai, Thursday, June 30, 2022. (PTI Photo/Shashank Parade)

Cameramen are delighted by the body language of Maharashtra's odd power couple — Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis — whenever the two are in public view together. The spontaneity and inexperience of Shinde comes through, even as Fadnavis who had a full term as chief minister, tries to keep the rebel Shiv Sena leader in the frame. When Fadnavis fears Shinde is speaking too much, the mike is snatched away. Otherwise Fadnavis furiously scribbles short notes to Shinde, while the latter is speaking!

Fadnavis, who is a master of all subjects of governance in Maharashtra, also is eager to put his viewpoint. Shinde's experience in the government was limited to urban development and transport portfolios he handled under chief ministers Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray. In the first fortnight after being sworn in as the chief minister, Shinde also had another handicap as the key officials of the government looked up to Fadnavis as the real source of power in the new coalition government as the BJP has twice the number of MLAs of the Shinde group.

BJP's likely game plan

Running coalitions is a tough challenge, but the task becomes complicated if the chief minister is the leader of the minor group, and constantly looks up to the larger group. Even though there are assurances given by the BJP that the present arrangement of a Shiv Sainik leading the government will continue till the next assembly elections in 2025, there are indications that the BJP through Fadnavis would take full control of the government, treating Shinde as a rubber stamp.

Even the first few decisions of the State government are only to restore the prestigious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Fadnavis which were scrapped by the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government of Thackeray. Shinde has so far not come up with any unique project of his own or of his group.

Lessons from the past

But smaller parties whose leaders are made prime ministers or chief ministers have suffered from inferiority complex, even when the larger party is supporting from outside. None of the four prime ministers (Charan Singh, Chandrashekar, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral) who headed parties smaller than their biggest partner could last long, with Charan Singh not even being able to face the Lok Sabha to move the motion of confidence in his government.

Charan Singh, Chandrashekar, H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral

For all these short-tenure PM's the outside supporter was the Congress which went on to pull the rug. Chandrashekar resigned after four months once he realised that the Congress MPs may not turn up to vote with his party which had been reduced to a rump. He had accused Congress president Rajiv Gandhi of putting hurdles on the path of the government, and that the economic adviser Manmohan Singh had shown a critical report of the International Monetary Fund on the country's economic crisis directly to Gandhi, without showing it to either the PM or to the finance minister Yashwant Sinha. Gowda and Gujral could not keep Congress president Sitaram Kesri in good humour and paid the price.

How minority PMs carried on

However, prime ministers P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh who led minority governments with the single largest party in parliament have had mixed success even though all three faced problems from their outside and inside supporters at least once.

P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh

Rao was challenged when the small AIADMK group withdrew support in 1993, but with the help of splits and defections managed to survive and rule till 1996. Vajpayee lost by a single vote in 1999 when again the AIADMK withdrew support, but bounced back in the elections to rule for a full term. Singh too was reduced to a minority when the left parties withdrew support over the civil nuclear deal with the United States, but the Congress managed to get other parties to support Singh in 2008, so that he could complete his first term and win a comfortable majority for the United Progressive Alliance for five more years.

Experience in states

At the state level too, bigger parties have supported smaller ones in the legislature to form the government, so that they keep the main opponent out of power. But equations have been tense, as was seen when the Congress supported JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy as the Karnataka chief minister in 2018.

Though Congress had nominated G Parameshwara as deputy chief minister, it was the legislature party leader Siddaramaiah, who was outside the cabinet, who tried to call the shots. However, after the uneasy alliance was routed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP launched 'operation lotus' to woo enough Congress and JD(S) MLAs to topple Kumaraswamy.

A rare minority government

But the unique case in the annals of minority governments was that of Madhu Koda, an Independent MLA in Jharkhand, who became chief minister with the support of the Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, even though he had not the backing of any other legislator.

As Congress wanted to keep the BJP out of power, it allowed lot of leeway to Koda, who allegedly amassed Rs 4,000 crores through bribes, and has been convicted for three years jail term for corruption. But Koda survived for 23 months, until the JMM withdrew its support and his government collapsed.

A model worth emulating

However, one chief minister who has managed to survive and even flourish even if his party is not the biggest one in the legislature is Bihar's chief minister who has been heading the state since 2005 with short breaks. In the present Bihar assembly, the JD(U) is the third largest party, and smaller in number than its partner, BJP. But CM Nitish Kumar has ensured that his agenda is not affected by any excessive demands by his coalition partners. Effective leadership of key portfolios and also by keeping the bureaucracy under tight control Nitish continues to thrive. He makes sure that discipline is maintained within his own party, so that the BJP, which is notorious for pro-active poaching, does not disturb JD(U) legislators in the state.

Though there are murmurs from some union and state ministers that the BJP should get chief ministership in view of its numerical superiority, the party high command is not willing to dare Nitish, who had once abandoned it and tied up with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. But the BJP is in no mood to give the same importance or clout to Eknath Shinde in Maharashtra.

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