Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 06, 2019
Who has won the game of perception management in Maharashtra?

The four-way teeter totter between key political parties in Maharashtra has ended in a climax that one would have considered preposterous even in a Bollywood masala flick of the 1980s.  From grand old alliances bitterly falling apart to foes turning into friends to early morning hush-hush swearing in ceremony that gave Maharashtra its shortest serving Chief Minister. The events post the 14th Maharashtra assembly elections played out in real-life what reel-life screenplays would find hard to emulate. With Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray promoting himself from being an unabashed critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government to the hotseat of the chief minister as the leader of the inherently-strained Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), the unprecedented ‘Maha-Twist’ has transformed Maharashtra’s political landscape beyond recognition. Amidst this drama, who has won the game of perception management is a question worth exploring.

Media and mind games

Jim Morrison’s doctrine of ‘whoever controls the media, controls the mind’ was embraced by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) as a gospel from the time it projected Devendra Fadnavis as its chief ministerial candidate. After the poll results, as cracks within its alliance with Shiv Sena widened on the issue of chief ministership, the BJP initially went into a ‘wait and watch’ mode. From the perspective of perception management, this position was widely applauded by party watchers as a ‘principled’ stance. However, in a move that backfired, the Centre clandestinely resorted to invoke Rule 12 of its Transaction of Business Rules to swear in Devendra Fadnavis as the chief minister, with NCP leader and Sharad Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, as his deputy. While this rattled both the Sena and NCP, it also catalysed their formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) with Congress happily joining the ‘BJP-hatao’ bandwagon. Together, they launched an all-out attack on the BJP and snatched the control of both the media and the message. The Sharad Pawar-led NCP along with Shiv Sena were quick to refute the factionalism within the MVA. They jointly accused the BJP of unconstitutional practices. In the hours to come, they collectively embarked on carpet bombing of the BJP, playing the victim card. Shiv Sena wasted no time in stealing the media limelight by rushing to the Supreme Court. Even before the euphoria of its masterstroke had sunk in, the BJP realised that the midnight move had boomeranged and the MVA had both the narrative and the media firmly in its grip.

Pawar School of Perception Management

Such was the impact that on the day all the newspapers on breakfast tables projected Uddhav Thackeray as the next chief minister, television screens were showing the swearing in of Devendra-Ajit duo. Before the papers hit the stands, however, the electronic and digital media had gone gaga over the Fadnavis-Pawar swearing in as yet another ‘political masterstroke’ of Amit Shah, the undisputed Chanakya of Indian politics. Within 24 hours, they had to yield to Sharad Pawar’s crises management wizardry to change their line of narrative upside-down. Mr. Pawar led from the front, distancing himself from his nephew. This was further reinforced by constant media engagement and social media messaging by all key MVA leaders who stood by the NCP chief. Sharad Pawar also ensured that all the MLAs who had sided with Ajit returned to his flock, isolating his estranged nephew, who was left with no alternative but to also return to his original party. As soon as Sharad Pawar had the numbers by his side, he came up with another media manoeuvre where MVA leaders and 162 MLAs collectively pledged their commitment to the coalition. This show of strength was smartly blended with the commemorative narrative of the Constitution Day. The BJP – which had already slipped from its moral high ground by anointing Ajit Pawar, an accused in various scams, as the deputy chief minister – found itself in knots of its own making. By evening, media channels, twitterati and political analysts were praising Pawar for his unmatched political acumen, reinforcing his image as the real political warlord on his home turf. The turn of events also indicated that the government’s remote control has moved from ‘Matoshree’ (official residence of Uddhav) to ‘Silver Oak’ (Pawar’s bungalow). In short, the tiger had been tamed in his own den. Importantly, Pawar also convincingly outplayed Amit Shah by not only snatching power from the BJP, but also displaying his master craftsmanship in the art of perception management.

Uneasy alliance

Now firmly in charge of the state, the biggest challenge for the MVA is to keep its boat steady amid the ideological storms that are bound to erupt within the coalition. But more than just watching each other’s backs, the tripartite government has to deliver on the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) which has promised to waive off the farm loans, fill vacant positions in the state government and promote secular values. Additionally, it has to pander to the interests of the smaller parties like Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Paksha, Samajwadi Party, Hitendra Thakur’s Bhaujan Vikas Aghadi who have lent the MVA their support.

As chief minister, Uddhav Thacekray would have to demonstrate strong administrative acumen and maintain cordial relations with all the MVA leaders. Given the complicated ideological cocktail, MVA’s leadership would have to sincerely work on perception management – their own as well as public perception – to ensure the coalition’s political sustenance. As of now, Thackeray has earned some media brownie points with a few bold and populist decisions. In the long-run, however, the MVA and each step it takes would be under close scrutiny of the media and an aggressive opposition led by Fadnavis. Dealing with the enormous problems of agri-crisis, growing farmers’ suicides, job generation, infrastructure development, irrigation, environment, and housing will be an uphill task for Thackeray. His other big challenge will be to keep the fractured coalition’s philosophical and ideological foundations glued together and convey to the people the vision and operational component of the CMP through constructive and sustained action.

Curtain-raiser to 2024

In a recent interview to a Marathi news channel, Sharad Pawar claimed that he denied Narendra Modi’s offer of joining forces with the BJP. He even rejected the Prime Minister’s offer of a ministerial berth to his daughter Supriya Sule. He also took a jibe at Fadnavis who had called him ‘an irrelevant force’ in the election rallies. This posturing indicates that Pawar has pitched himself as a strong opposition to Modi and BJP at both the national and state levels. With Maharashtra, Pawar has shown his capabilities of making regional parties and the Congress rally behind him to take on the mighty BJP in 2024. As the chief architect of the MVA, he just may have laid the foundations of a credible third front which can indeed pose a tough challenge to BJP’s rapidly expanding influence. In Pawar’s own admission, the emergence of the MVA might prove to be a prototype for new equations that could possibly arise in other states.


In politics, perception is not built overnight. It evolves with persistence and perseverance. The MVA will have a tough time to manage its image while fending repeated attacks from a strong opposition led by Devendra Fadnavis, who will be constantly seeking to come hard at Uddhav Thackeray, the veritable Brutus in their eyes. The BJP, with its strong media and perception management skills will try to build a narrative of how they are the sole crusaders of Hindutva and how they have been betrayed by Shiv Sena’s greed of power. It would also be too early to write off the Modi-Shah duo who, with hurt egos, are now expected to react like wounded tigers at the loss of a crucial state. In the perception management game, the current scoreboard in Maharashtra reads BJP: 0, MVA: 1. Game on!

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