The Sena, the Congress and the NCP fear increasing irrelevance because of the BJP.
It will be quite a strange government in Maharashtra if Uddhav Thackeray leads a coalition comprising the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). So strange that it was not expected or anticipated at all by anyone before the election. For three decades, the Thackerays have sided with the BJP. Each time, without fail, the Shiv Sena has thrown a tantrum during seat sharing. Each time, without fail, the Sena has asked for more than the numbers merit. And each time, the BJP has been patient with it because it was sure that in time it would take over totally, as it has. The BJP has the steely discipline to play the very long game.
The Sena is extroverted and has no restraint. It expresses its opinion — which can change quite arbitrarily, as the Congress and the NCP will discover — frequently and publicly. Saamana, the Sena newspaper, publishes interviews with the Sena’s chief on the front page regularly and this is the medium through it communicates its stubbornness to its constituency. This becomes fodder for the local newspapers and channels. Because all of it is in Marathi, the rest of India doesn’t really absorb how mercurial the Sena is, but of course it will not take us long to find out.
Ideologically, the Sena is thought to be partners with the BJP, but actually, it has no core Hindutva ideology. The Sena is an equal opportunity hater. It has drawn blood from north Indians, south Indians as well as Muslims as it has sought to build itself. It is a fact that Sena leaders participated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and in the subsequent riots against Mumbai’s Muslims in 1992-93. Sena leaders including Madhukar Sarpotdar were convicted due to this action.
But it is also true that in Mumbai the Sena is willing to humiliate and brutalise the same north Indian Hindus with whom they participated in the Ayodhya vandalism. The same dislike and resentment that the Sena shows to Muslims in general, it can show to others quite easily.
How the Gandhis will accommodate this past, and the language from the Thackerays that is sure to follow against both enemy and ally, will be fascinating to observe. The party has long claimed to be the bulwark of secularism in India against the dark forces of Hindutva. How people like Manmohan Singh, Shashi Tharoor and P. Chidambaram will now justify a pact and an alliance with the Sena I am aching to find out.
The other thing that is interesting about the Sena is that because it doesn’t have any particular ideology, it has no meaningful manifesto or strategic direction. It has zero ideas on how the economy should be run, what the nature of the state sector should be, what can be done to raise India’s human development index or how to contain China or Pakistan. It speaks (or rather shouts) brave words of the same sort that your angry uncle would from his armchair. The Sena can quickly reduce most solutions to violence. When in power, it will revert to this gene which is coded into it and we will no doubt witness entertaining and frightening moments.
For the Congress and the NCP, this election result was frankly unexpected. They thought they would be hammered, but they were only bruised. The two parties share a similar voteshare as the Sena (about 16 per cent each) which is only 8 per cent points less than the BJP got. While the Congress is in slow decline, there clearly still is scope for both parties to go back to the ground and rebuild. There remains some traction for Congressism in Maharashtra which can be exploited by hardworking and talented leaders.
It is therefore unexpected that the Congress would consider this partnership with the Thackerays because it is a step in the other direction. It is a defensive political move rather than an offensive one. The obvious way to understand this alliance, from the Congress’ and the NCP’s perspective, is to assume that this coming together with the Sena is not magnetic. Meaning there is no natural attraction between positive and negative in this case. There is clear repellence at the level of the worker and the voter. The objective is to remain relevant in the age of a totally dominating BJP. A more confident Congress would have sought another election pointing to the failure of the BJP-Sena alliance. But it appears to be too broken and directionless today to be able to see into 2020.
All three of them, the Sena, the Congress and the NCP, fear marginalisation and increasing irrelevance because of the new, Narendra Modi-led BJP. That is a legitimate fear. The sort of competence that the BJP brings to elections and to holding onto power is fearsome. And it is this awesome power that is forcing its opponents into actions that would be unthinkable in the age of our national politics before Narendra Modi.