Hardly anyone has bought chief minister Ashok Chavan’s clarification that the government merely implemented Motor Vehicles Act, given the timing of the announcement – civic polls are round the corner. And as we hear of state government’s draft culture policy asking ministers to speak in Marathi in government functions and while interacting with foreign dignitaries, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s more to it than meets the eye. More than Congress party’s deviation from its stated ideology for the sake of electoral gains.

My take on the issue is slightly removed from one that has been widely perceived. Be it the announcement of new taxi-permit rules, or Chavan’s backtracking.

There’s a theory about this announcement that after the unexpected gains MNS made in Mumbai and Thane region in last year’s assembly polls, Congress-NCP combine was nervous and, with civic polls drawing round the corner, attempted to strip MNS of its agenda touching a perfect local issue so as to do better at the hustings. Even if that be so, it’s at the most a half truth. A superficial one.

I treat the whole thing from two different perspectives: one, what gave a state unit of a pan-India party the authority to take a decision of such ideological divergence on its own; two, wasn’t there really anything else besides political gains of MNS to prompt the decision?

The first can be easily understood. Just call to mind what came to pass in 2003 assembly elections in Gujarat. Congress did the unexpected. Despites its all rhetoric of being secular, despites party president Sonia Gandhi’s flaying chief minister Narendra Modi as ‘Maut ka Suadaagar’ (merchant of death), Congress did decide to confront Modi with Modi’s weapon and invented concept of ‘soft hindutva’ against Modi’s ‘hard hindutva’. Seen in this light, Congress-NCP government could be understood to have decided to confront Raj with Raj’s weapon.

However, this doesn’t satisfactorily answer the reason of Congress-NCP government’s decision, for Congress had failed to cash in on the wave sweeping Gujarat in 2003 and it should therefore not be an ideal thing to prompt deviation of ideology for electoral gains.

Well, people might argue the cases of BJP and BSP. Discarding its core belief of Hindutva, BJP formed government at the Centre and expanded its base across India aligning with other parties, most of which secular. BSP did the same in last assembly elections. It, putting its exclusive dalit agenda on backburner, invented concept of social-engineering.

I agree that these three major political developments of the decade laid down that what mattered most in realpolitik is a strategy based on concurrent mood of electorates, and that strategy could not only deviate from organisation’s stated ideology but could even be one absolutely opposite to it. No doubt, these developments established and strengthened the concept of deviation from core beliefs in Indian politics. So my view is that Congress-NCP government derived its authority to take the decision it took from this trend, but the reason prompting the decision was bigger than political gains of MNS.

More noticeable things than surprising rise of MNS and influence of Raj Thackeray occurred in Maharashtra last year, things that shaped my second perspective of issue under discussion. Political observers and analysts have noticed certain metamorphosis in the way Raj treated ‘Marathi’ and ‘sons of the soil’ issue and he, to people’s utter surprise, seems to be gradually shunning hard mannerism of his politics, leaving a space for others to occupy – Shiv Sena, and even Congress-NCP combine.

Raj’s metamorphosis is seen in certain events. One, he lauded Amitabh Bachchan – a Hindi cine actor, a north Indian, and someone he had an issue with merely because of his traditional brand of politics – for baling out Marathi flick Harishchandrachi factory, country’s Oscar entry for the year. Raj could have rather stayed silent on the topic, given his opposition to north Indians and difference with Bachchan.

Slapping SP MLA Abu Azmi in full public view in state assembly was shocking but it brought to fore another change in the way Raj commented on it. He said his party’s intent was not to malign the image of Assembly, so they would apologize to the House but not to Azmi. I hardly remember Raj ever made an apology for violence or showed even showy respect for rule of law or constitution.

Likewise, when Railway Recruitment exams were held in Maharasthra, MNS confined itself to asking Railways to treat locals with priority but steered clear of violence on the day of exams. In the past, MNS goons would bash up north Indians and drive them away. As for the Mumbai vs Bombay controversy of Karan Johar’s ‘Wake up Sid’, it came to a close immaturely, with Jauhar talking to Raj even before movie’s release for fear of violence and vandalism. Had he released the movie, Raj perhaps would have reacted to this with some kind of change, too.

People say that old, inactive and irrelevant Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s sudden roarings after assembly polls and after a period of lull, including old angry editorials in party mouth-piece ‘Saamana’ and attack on IBN-Lokmat office allegedly by Shiv Sainiks for running a negative story about Thackeray, are meant to regain Sena’s lost ground. I dismiss it. Thackeray could have done it earlier, too, when Raj, as MNS chief, was acting like young Bala Saheb. But he didn’t, for Raj had a voice and relevance stronger than him.

It was only after Raj started mellowing, Thackeray tried to re-fill the space Raj was slowly withdrawing from. Congress-NCP wanted to do the same; state government’s draft culture policy which we hear of now bears this out. No surprise, Raj was seen in his old colours after this recent controversy.

Analyzing reason of Chavan’s backpedaling is no short of riveting. Terming it as merely a correction of deviation from ideology after High Command found it unacceptable – with a theory that Gujarat error is a lesson – is not just naïve but actually missing the point. Chavan backtracked reportedly under pressure from High Command, for his government’s decision could back fire, even if not in Maharashtra, in other states, in particular north Indians where party is trying to re-strengthen itself.

Deviation from core belief poses two major problems: loss of trust among electorates, one; and loss of trust within organization, one. Deviation has electorally benefitted only BJP and BSP (for their divergence was about a movement from parochialism to inclusiveness and electoral wins helped them keep party together) but not for Congress (for its was exactly opposite). While BJP and BSP’s helped it improve its overall image, Congress party’s shattered on the contrary, creating disbelief among voters about it in general and creating disagreement within the party in particular. Congress High Command seems wary enough not to repeat the mistake.

Chavan has not backpedaled on fifteen years residency norm of taxi permit and Congress party stands by him describing the decision as mere implementation of the Motor Vehicles Act. This is another aspect of the issue. Congress is attempting a different sort of deviation this time, one which is less likely to pose problem for it, for residency norm is not so hot a topic as language and religion and so on.

Saurabh Dharmesh

[Image courtesy: http://im.rediff.com/news/2010/jan/20nlook6.jpg]