Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party has regained control of India’s richest state Maharashtra by forming a partnership with rebel lawmakers who brought down the state government.
Maharashtra, the second most populous state in India and home to the country’s financial capital Mumbai, is a huge political prize for the BJP as it consolidates power ahead of the general election in 2024.
After two weeks of political drama, the BJP has agreed to form a new administration with nearly 40 breakaway legislators from the regional Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party. They had revolted against Uddhav Thackeray, their party president and chief minister of the state.
Narendra Taneja, a BJP leader, described the political arrangement as a “joint government” between BJP and Shiv Sena. “We may have more seats in the state parliament, but we are there like equal partners,” said Taneja.
Taneja pledged the BJP would return Maharashtra to “the development agenda” after accusing the former state administration of being “at the forefront in opposing everything that the central government wanted” on development.
The BJP’s return to power in Maharashtra is a blow to opposition parties. With the Gandhi family-led opposition Congress in disarray, “the real fight is being put up by the regional parties”, said Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator.
“The message of this split in Shiv Sena is that the BJP’s strategy for the future may be to split regional parties and weaken them in different states.”
A BJP candidate was expected to become the new chief minister after Thackeray, having lost his majority, stood down on Wednesday. But at the last minute the parties decided to appoint rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde instead.
The BJP were “expected to do back-seat driving, but it’ll depend on what Shinde wants”, added Chowdhury. “I don’t think he’s going to be a rubber stamp.”
Following elections in 2019, Thackeray, who was considered a moderate within the rightwing party, had forged a secular coalition with opposition parties. That broke decades of alliance with the like-minded BJP and caused an ideological rift within the party.
The Thackeray-led government was credited for its response to the Covid-19 crisis and applauded for an ambitious climate change agenda. But the secular coalition angered some party members and Thackeray was accused of diluting Shiv Sena’s ideology.
In late June, dozens of rebel Shiv Sena lawmakers were whisked out of Maharashtra on chartered jets and holed up in hotels in far-flung states. The practice of Indian political parties, or in this case factions, of physically isolating legislators to prevent them defecting has become so commonplace that it has been labelled “resort politics”.
Thackeray loyalists claimed that the BJP provided the rebels with flights and accommodation, a charge Taneja dismissed. “Are they suggesting that Shiv Sena as a political party cannot afford to charter a plane or book 20 rooms in a hotel?” he asked.