Business as unusual: Mumbai and new regime

NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal is greeted by industrialist Mukesh Ambani, along with wife Nita and son Anant, at the swearing-in of the Maharashtra government at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. (PTI)

MUMBAI : On the eve of Uddhav Thackeray’s swearing-in as Maharashtra chief minister on 29 November, his son and newly-minted MLA (member of the legislative assembly) of Shiv Sena Aaditya took a chartered flight for a lightning trip to New Delhi. His sole purpose was to invite Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh of the Congress party to the oath-taking ceremony at Mumbai’s famed Shivaji Park. Speculation ran high on whether Gandhi—known to have not warmed up to the unnatural alliance of the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena as Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA)—would make a surprise appearance.

Instead, the surprise was the presence of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani with wife Nita and son Anant. They were warmly greeted by the Thackerays and prominently seated on the dais, never mind the protocol.

It took some smart moves by Thackerays’ well-wishers in the politico-corporate world to swing this, but Ambani’s presence—despite his friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—sent some reassuring signals to corporate India, which sees the Shiv Sena as a disruptive, extortionist and violent force not conducive for business. In the next four days as chief minister, Thackeray’s decisions and statements allowed a glimpse into the nature and priorities of his MVA government.

Thackeray appears bold in his equation with the industry; unapologetic about his agenda of pulling back from megaprojects to a more equitable prioritization of farmers, fisherfolk and other economically vulnerable groups; unflinching in his relationship with the Modi government; and defiant about his party’s commitment to Hindutva irrespective of the emphasis on secularism in the MVA’s common minimum programme.

Clearly, it is unlikely to be business as usual for the corporate-financial world headquartered in Mumbai, but the Shiv Sena may not be the old disruptive and violent party either. That is, if the MVA government lasts for a respectable length of time. A majority in the state assembly is not its problem—it is comfortable with 170 MLAs in the 288-member House—but it comes with internal contradictions, ideological incongruities, and the insecurity of having snubbed a powerful and resource-rich BJP.

What about the binding factors? The Shiv Sena’s over-arching ambition to govern Maharashtra—and, of course, Mumbai—and NCP president Sharad Pawar, who stitched the alliance together virtually out of thin air and retains the “remote control” over the government. Then, don’t underestimate the influence of the Sena’s trade unions, who played a key role in “protecting” MLAs of all three parties—the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena—from a predatory BJP in the month-long drama that preceded the formation of the government. So, the jury is out on its longevity but its direction and agenda are clear.

Big business in spotlight

In his first week, chief minister Thackeray called for a comprehensive review of all megaprojects initiated by his predecessor Devendra Fadnavis. He instructed bureaucrats to not release payment for projects under way till his government had studied them; deprioritized Modi-Fadnavis’s flagship project of Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train and sent it for a review; issued stop-work order for the controversial car shed of Metro 3 in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony; and withdrew police cases against environmental and student activists of the pro-Aarey agitation.

He also ordered the withdrawal of cases against fisherfolk protesting against Nanar refinery on the Konkan coast, making it obvious that his government is unlikely to soften towards the mega-petroleum refinery project.

This means Thackeray has applied brakes on total long-term investment of a staggering 4.76 trillion already. The big four are Nanar refinery ( 3 trillion) that was supposed to have state-run oil firms collaborate with Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.; Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train ( 1.1 trillion) for which Japan International Cooperation Agency was to extend 81% as credit at a nominal interest rate; Mumbai-Nagpur Samriddhi Marg ( 46,000 crore); and Mumbai’s Coastal Road ( 12,000 crore).

Then, there are others such the Versova-Bandra Sea Link ( 7,000 crore), Thane Creek bridge ( 800 crore) and so on. All departments of the state government have been instructed to prepare their lists of projects and reach them to Thackeray’s desk at the earliest. The intent, said a government insider, is not to freeze all the projects but to conduct a comprehensive review to assess if each such mega-investment was needed, if transparency was maintained in the negotiation and contracting processes, and if there was a pattern in the selection of big-ticket contractors.

Should this send a chill across the boardrooms of Mumbai given that a number of infrastructure corporates are involved in these projects? “Don’t draw such conclusions,” the government insider assured this reporter.

Besides, business leaders are counting on the “Pawar factor”. In his 60-year-long political career, Pawar has displayed a rare sense of a politician being business-friendly while keeping businessmen at arm’s length on a number of occasions. “Pawar Saheb understands the role of big business and investments, but he’s equally sensitive to the plight of farmers, small businesses and similar groups in society,” said Jitendra Awhad, NCP leader and MLA.

Farmer-friendly

In a move that bears the imprint of the NCP and Congress, Thackeray reiterated his government’s commitment to the loan waiver promised to Maharashtra’s farmers, who have been hit by non-remunerative prices and unseasonal rain. Thackeray chaired a high-level meeting on 2 December with his mini-cabinet of five ministers and top bureaucrats to work out the arithmetic of such a loan waiver (he had demanded compensation at 25,000 per hectare of crop loss when the Shiv Sena was part of the Fadnavis government).

At least 35,800 crore would be required for waiving loans of more than 10 million suffering farmers, it was estimated. This would be twice the amount of relief and waiver extended by the Fadnavis government in the last two-three years. The assessment in that meeting, insiders say, was that Maharashtra could carry this off at a pinch—pressure could be put on insurance companies perhaps—even if the Modi government did not help.

When Thackeray took over, Maharashtra had a debt burden of nearly 4.8 trillion—incidentally the total cost of projects brought under review—which was about one-fourth of the amount when Fadnavis took over in 2014. Given the state’s gross domestic product, the debt burden should not pose problems, reckons the top bureaucracy. Thackeray has promised a White Paper on the state’s finances. Besides this, MVA will have to reach out to flood-affected people with rehabilitation measures, begin recruitment on a large scale especially for government vacancies, address pending issues such as minimum wages for Anganwadi workers and teachers, and so on.

Loggerheads with the BJP

Most of the megaprojects now reviewed by Thackeray’s government and the proposed ones like the Union shipping ministry creating a second Marine Drive along Mumbai’s eastern waterfront puts him on a direct confrontation course with the Modi’s government. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are unlikely to take lightly the snub of the party’s oldest ally walking out of the National Democratic Alliance to join hands with political rivals. “The eastern waterfront is under (Nitin) Gadkariji’s ministry and it’ll be interesting to see how the Thackeray government deals with it,” said BJP’s Kirit Somaiya, a former member of Parliament (MP).

The BJP-Sena bitterness may well throw its shadow on centre-state relations. BJP insiders say that government formation is not over and the party will have its chief minister in a few months. The BJP’s “Karnataka model” or infamous Operation Kamala to lure away Opposition MLAs to form a government remains one threat to Thackeray’s MVA government. The ideological incongruities present the internal threat.

These could unravel any moment. Stung by the criticism that the Sena had compromised on its core philosophy of Hindutva in the MVA’s common minimum programme, in which Sonia Gandhi reportedly insisted on a clear commitment to secularism, Thackeray reiterated that there’s no dilution in his Hindutva. His optics so far have been all saffron and Hindutva-dominated. If this continues, it could make the Congress squirm and rethink the alliance.

There could be any number of such flashpoints through Thackeray’s tenure. The first of them could possibly come as early as January when the nation’s civilian honours are announced. Should the Modi government declare the highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as was promised in the party’s state manifesto, it will trigger a bushfire in the MVA government.

The Shiv Sena considers Savarkar among its tallest icons and has demanded the civilian honour for him for decades while the Congress has been squeamish about Savarkar given his Hindutva ideology. “We will cross the bridge if and when we come to it,” said Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha.

Bharatkumar Raut, former journalist and Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP, wondered: “Where’s the question of running the government together. These three parties will find it difficult to even walk together given the differences in their ideologies, mindsets and working styles?”

This is where Pawar’s role could assume make-or-break proportions. It’s no secret that he prevailed upon Sonia Gandhi—though Rahul Gandhi could not be convinced—of the need for the Sena-Congress-NCP alliance however anomalous it would be, and simultaneously prevailed upon Thackeray to detach from the BJP. With a number of intricate political manoeuvres that he orchestrated, Pawar was able to piece the alliance and importantly its common minimum programme, which would not raise anyone’s hackles.

The inherent contradictions

However, this programme is the bare minimum, a rough road map as it were, that guides Thackeray’s government. As political scientist Suhas Palshikar remarked, “The three parties started out with the handicap of being an odd coalition. The common minimum programme was essential because without it they would not earn confidence of each other or the people, but it’s a rather tame programme.”

Indeed, the common minimum programme leaves out contentious issues such as Savarkar’s status, Ram Mandir and the Bhima Koregaon cases among others which could easily turn into flashpoints.

There is pressure building up from the Sena’s allies for the government to review the Bhima Koregaon violence cases. If investigations lead to right-wing provocators like Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote as those familiar with the case say it does, this could place Thackeray in a bind. “There are false cases against people in Bhima Koregaon issue and Thackerayji should withdraw these too as he did in Aarey and Nanar,” said the NCP’s Awhad.

At the first dissonance or conflict, the Congress could well withdraw, leaving the alliance in a minority. Of the three parties, it has the least at stake. It was placed fourth in the seats tally, its leaders did not even bother to campaign for election save a few indifferent rallies by Rahul Gandhi, and displayed all signs of a loser before votes were cast. It’s now sharing power in a key state like Maharashtra but finds it difficult to adjust to the Shiv Sena.

However, on both fronts—business-friendliness and Congress-friendliness— the Sena’s past shows that it’s flexible when it wants to be. In the first half of its 53-year-old history, there is little doubt that the Sena benefited from the Congress’s direct and indirect support.

The rupture came in the late 1980s when the Shiv Sena—which picked the “outsider” in Mumbai as per convenience, from south Indians to Gujaratis to Muslims—veered decisively towards Hindutva. Also, later generations of Gandhis did not share good equations with the late Bal Thackeray. Hindutva, then, is the bone of contention between the two, even if the Congress now has its own inclusive “soft” variant of the philosophy.

In conclusion

The Enron deal of the 1990s is a benchmark in the Shiv Sena’s approach to business. Among the first mega foreign direct investment projects in the post-liberalization era, the Sena-BJP government ripped Enron apart for the high cost of the power project, destruction of the Konkan coast, and vowed to “thrown it into the Arabian Sea” if they would occupy Mantralaya, the seat of power in Maharashtra.

When the Sena-BJP did come to power in 1995, the government renegotiated the Enron deal, with Maharashtra purchasing power at higher rates than in the original agreement. A visit by Enron’s then honcho Rebecca Mark to the Thackeray bungalow Matoshree famously sealed the deal.

One thing is for sure: as Maharashtra settles down to this odd alliance and Thackeray carves out his agenda, he would want no more “Enrons”.

Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist and chronicler, writes on politics, cities, gender and media.

Business as unusual Mumbai and new regime

MVA appears bold in its equation with big business, but it is early days for an alliance with inherent contradictions

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