The confrontation between the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray-led coalition of Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress is fast building up at the nascent stage of the new anti-BJP dispensation.
The flashpoint, expectedly, could be the bullet train project involving a high-speed train connecting Ahmedabad and Mumbai, which, in a sense, was a replica of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s warm relationship with Modi and the latter’s projected gift to the people of his home state of Gujarat.
With the new coalition partners baying for killing the controversial project to spite Modi for whom this is a prestige project close to his heart, projecting it as a classic case of overspending, there was never any doubt that the bullet train slated to run at a top speed 320 kms an hour for a run of over 5,000 kms, making a total of 70 trips a day, would end up as a bone of contention.
With the deadline for the project being August 15, 2022, work has of late been speeded up but if Maharashtra were to refuse to cooperate the project could get inordinately delayed. Already, there are reports that the first instalment of the central share of Rs 40,000 crore that was in the pipeline has been stopped in its tracks because there were rumours that the money may be diverted towards waiving off farm loans by the new State government which is a flagship promise of the new coalition to ingratiate itself to the powerful vote bank of the farmers. Hamstrung with heavy past debts, the Centre reckons that the State may be forced to renege on the farm loan waiver promise, angering the farmers to the advantage of the BJP.
The Uddhav Thackeray dispensation has found support among farmers especially in Palghar through which about 110 km of the train corridor is slated to pass and predictably, land acquisition in this area is facing a huge challenge. The project requires an estimated 300 hectares across 73 villages affecting about 3,000 people and that is going to be a huge task with an anti-Modi government now in command in Maharashtra.
For the Centre, scuttling of the project would be an unaffordable loss of face with the masses which it can ill afford. Also, it would jeopardise the excellent relations with Japan and lower India’s business credibility at a time when it is struggling against an economic downturn that is exacerbated by poor foreign investment and declining exports.
Uddhav Thackeray, while ordering a review of the bullet train project has cleverly said that the project has not been put on hold, it has merely been ordered for review. What that would amount to is the crucial question that begs an answer.
The Modi government is not a government that can be pushed around. It is a strong-willed one and would not take rejection or deliberate delay lying down. Considering that much of the project cost would be met by the Japanese, it is phoney to oppose the project on account of high cost to the Indian exchequer. All that makes the confrontation seem inevitable. The coalition would also not like to be seen as being opposed to foreign investment and would eschew sending out wrong signals. That increases its dilemma — while it wants to project the bullet train as an example of BJP profligacy, it is wary of an impression spreading that the Congress and its allies are unreliable when it comes to honouring a big foreign investment deal. Besides, it would be no mean task for the new coalition to meet its promise to the farmers on farm loan waiver. With the NCP and the Congress poles apart from the Shiv Sena ideologically, any failure to meet vital commitments could lead one of the partners to drift away from the coalition.
The NCP supremo, Sharad Pawar, has already indicated how he was wooed by Prime Minister Modi to form a coalition with the BJP with an assurance that his daughter Supriya Sule would be inducted as a Central minister. While it was inappropriate for Pawar to disclose publicly what transpired in his private meeting with Modi and how he had rejected his overture, there is no knowing when the NCP can walk away from the coalition and join forces with the BJP.
It is also not beyond the Shiv Sena too, to strike a deal with the BJP if it finds the going tough in the coalition against it. This or the BJP deal with NCP may not happen in the next few months but there is no guarantee that it would not happen in the longer run. The possibility of a few legislators from either the NCP or the Shiv Sena or the Congress snapping links with their respective parties and extending help to the BJP can also not be ruled out even if that involves short-term disqualification as in Karnataka.
The future is indeed pregnant with possibilities unless the coalition is able to produce spectacular results in energising the Maharashtra economy, curbing corruption and in holding out good governance as a model state.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has shown that he can bend suitably if his seat is threatened. The recent conciliatory tone of his references to Modi is cleverly designed but he would face relentless pressure from his new allies to toughen up. His reaffirmed show of preference for saffron as a colour and his love for Hindutva may not invite frowns today but six months down the line, things may be different.
Yet, there is no mistaking the magic that power can play in parties with common interests and motivation staying together. Ideology is just a word and can be kept aside for the sake of power as the fact of the coalition bore out. The coming months are indeed a time to watch.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.