With Uddhav Thackeray’s refusal to go along with the BJP after the polls, the ruling party at the Centre has been given a sudden jolt.
As the Hindutva allies fell apart over power sharing in Maharashtra, the obituary reference to Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha on the opening day of the Winter Session this week showed the Shiv Sena’s bitterness against the BJP’s top brass.
Paying glowing tributes to Jaitley, Sena leader Sanjay Raut recalled the departed leader’s qualities of head and heart, noting that Jaitley’s death was a huge loss for the Sena as “we have learnt from him on how to maintain relations” (in politics).
He said whether in politics or personal life, Jaitley never spoke untruths. His remarks were an oblique attack on BJP president Amit Shah, whom the Sena has accused of “betrayal” on the chief ministership issue.
Without doubt, the unthinkable has happened in Maharashtra. The BJP and the Shiv Sena, which always proclaimed themselves as Ram bhakts, have formally parted ways over government formation in the state soon after the Ayodhya verdict.
Shiv Sena MPs have been granted seats on the Opposition benches in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, a signal from the BJP that the erstwhile ally is “persona non grata” in the NDA.
The BJP and the Shiv Sena were once inseparable twins in what was a Congress-dominated state where the grand old party held sway till 1995, when the first Sena-BJP government was elected, and the coalition era began in the state. Not long ago, the BJP was the laggard in the state and it was known as “shetji-bhatji” party (Bania-Brahmin outfit) like its predecessor, the erstwhile Jan Sangh.
With Uddhav Thackeray’s refusal to go along with the BJP after the polls, the ruling party at the Centre has been given a sudden jolt. But for those who follow the politics of Maharashtra, the jolt was not unexpected.
The BJP might deny it, but signals were clear that it was getting ready to dump the Sena after the Assembly polls as it was more than confident of gaining a majority on its own in the 288-member House or making up the majority with a few Independents. Such a situation would have left no room for the Sena. Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ frequent boast that “I will be back” had left no one in doubt that the Sena was there to either play second fiddle or to be kicked out.
Now with the BJP’s calculations going awry, Mr Thackeray has struck accusing the BJP of betrayal on the issue of granting chief ministership to the Sena, a claim flatly rejected by the BJP. Maharashtra’s politics has been thrown into a churn. The parting of ways between the saffron allies is set to have a deep impact on Maharashtra’s politics, where the BJP is the elephant in the room since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014.
The BJP has suddenly become the common enemy of three key political outfits in the state — the Shiv Sena, the Sharad Pawar-led NCP and the Congress. How the three parties go about in their opposition to the BJP would decide how politics take shape in the months and years ahead. No doubt Maharashtra has entered into an uncertain political phase with “big brother” BJP watching silently for the right opportunity to strike. Amit Shah is not a man known to take things lying down.
But the real question is — why did the Sena revolt? Those who follow the Maharashtra political scene had been observing the growing unease in the Sena since it suddenly became junior to the BJP in state politics and losing its “elder brother” status from the start of the alliance that arose from the need for a united fight against the then dominant Congress.
The BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is a different outfit for the Sena unlike the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Mr Modi, ably assisted by Mr Shah, was the first BJP leader to secure a majority for the BJP in the Lok Sabha. The Modi-Shah duo won the Lok Sabha elections for the second time with a spectacular 303 in the 543-member House.
The best the BJP could get was 182 in the Lok Sabha in the Vajpayee-Advani era in 1999, in the wake of the Kargil conflict. Whenever in Mumbai, Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani would visit “Matoshree”, the Thackeray residence in suburban Bandra, to meet Bal Thackeray. That stopped after Mr Modi became Prime Minister and in the early days, the BJP made it a point to plant stories in the media ahead of the PM’s or the party chief’s visits to Mumbai that they did not intend to visit Matoshree. It was to drive home the point that the Sena was no longer a vital ally for the BJP in the changed circumstances.
The first major shock to the Sena was the surprise announcement by the BJP ahead of the Assembly elections in October 2014 that it was going solo. The announcement came in the midst of talks on seat-sharing with the Sena when Uddhav was not giving the requisite number of seats as sought by the BJP.
It was a bolt from the blue for the Sena, while for the BJP it was a well-crafted strategy to leave its oldest ideological partner high and dry in the middle of the election season. The resource-rich BJP made most of the breakup with the Sena by admitting several leaders from the Congress and the NCP to ensure that it hits the bulls’ eye. The BJP got 122 seats in the 288-member House to emerge as the single largest party. The Sena, which fought valiantly, won just 63 seats.
Interestingly, Sharad Pawar’s decision to support the BJP from outside on the plea of ensuing stability in Maharashtra resulted in the Sena’s bargaining power going for a toss. For a brief time, the Sena was in the Opposition and its leader Eknath Shinde also got Leader of the Opposition status. With great difficulty, the Sena managed to get into the government but failed to get good ministries.
At the Centre too, the Sena was given the heavy industries portfolio, a “passenger” ministry with which it was not comfortable. After the Lok Sabha elections in May this year, the Sena was again handed the same ministry despite the fact that the party had made it clear it did not want that ministry. The BJP’s unwritten message was “take it or leave it”.
What made matters worse for the Sena was the way the BJP was making strides in local elections at the cost of other parties, including the Sena. The Opposition leaders used to allege at that time that the “resource-rich” BJP was using every trick in the trade to marginalise its rivals and Sena leaders too used to privately agree with such charges.
Since the BJP and the Sena share the same political space of Hindutva in Maharashtra, it was clear the growth of one would be at the cost of the other. Some two years back, a sulking Uddhav Thackeray had lamented that the Sena’s 25 years in alliance with the BJP were “wasted” years. At the same time, the Sena passed a resolution at its national convention declaring that henceforth, it would fight all elections on its own.
Just before the Lok Sabha polls, Amit Shah visited Matoshree and had extended the olive branch, apparently to ensure there was no division of the Hindutva vote in the polls, including that of the Assembly.
Uddhav apparently sensed a plot by the BJP, and drove a hard bargain. When the BJP campaign on Kashmir, Article 370 and triple talaq failed to make any impact and local issues, including agrarian distress, played a part, it threw up a verdict that was unpalatable to the BJP. Sulking for long under the BJP’s “big brother” attitude, the Sena chief sensed that it was the time to strike, and sought the chief ministership as per the “50:50” power-sharing deal arrived at with the BJP. The BJP denied any such agreement and the rest, as they say, is history.