Since late leaders Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and Pramod Mahajan of the BJP worked out an alliance in 1989, the Sena has always been seen as the senior partner in Maharashtra. For the first time, the Sena looks prepared to play second fiddle.
“The foremost priority in the assembly elections is to display a united face of the grand alliance and dislodge the Congress-NCP government,” Uddhav Thackeray says, amid the BJP’s demands for a higher share of seats for October’s assembly elections.
This has come after some political posturing. At a Sena victory rally in Mumbai last month, Uddhav gave credit to Bal Thackeray and sainiks for the electoral success, skipping any mention of Narendra Modi although even rivals the Congress and the NCP have conceded there was a wave in Modi’s favour. Before that, the Sena had fussed over the portfolio given to its sole union minister, Anant Geete, but eventually fallen in line.
Since the BJP began demanding a higher share of seats, it has become clearer and clearer that the Sena is more desperate than the BJP for the alliance. Sena mouthpiece Saamna, for one, has held back from making any scathing attack on the BJP leadership, while even the normally aggressive Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena MP, has been repeatedly saying, “Our alliance is staying; there is nothing to worry about.”
The shift in the balance of power has been noticeable since a BJP conclave, where workers demanded snapping of the alliance and contesting all 288 seats. The Sena appears to have perceived that it will suffer the most from a multi-cornered contest. With 46 seats, it is already number four in the assembly, just behind the BJP’s 47, while the ruling Congress-NCP has 82 and 62.
In 2009, the Sena had contested 169 to the BJP’s 119 — they had split 171-117 in 1989 — but the BJP now not only wants to contest 135 but also the Sena to surrender some of the remaining 153 seats among other partners — the Republican Party of India, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and the Rashtriya Samaj Party.
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The assertiveness of the NCP seems to have encouraged the BJP. Should the NCP split with the Congress, the BJP believes it will be best placed in a four-cornered contest. At the meeting, the BJP analysed the Sena performance since 1966 and counted at least 58 seats it has never won among the 171 it has contested since the alliance. “If seat-sharing takes place on our terms, the alliance will stay. Otherwise, we are prepared to contest all 288 seats alone,” says a BJP general secretary in the party’s core committee.
Some 10 Shiv Sena MLAs The Indian Express spoke to all agreed it would be “a blunder not to accommodate each other’s concerns and revise seat shares”. A party general secretary admits, “As the leading party in Delhi, the BJP enjoys a feel-good sense. Unlike in the Lok Sabha polls, we cannot rule out the MNS either; it can still poll 10,000 to 30,000 votes a seat and play spoiler to us. Moreover, if we split, the 17 per cent Gujarati voters will turn away from us.”
Besides, should they contest separately, another worry for the Sena is the potential flight of members into the BJP.
This will be the first assembly election in which the Sena is being led by Uddhav, after the Bal Thackeray era. It was the latter who provided the aggression in the Sena, from equating the BJP to “a nagging woman” to supporting Pratibha Patil for President against the BJP’s wishes. In the 1999, 2004 and 2009 assembly polls, it was the BJP who tried to avoid antagonising the Sena over seat shares. Even after Thackeray’s death, Saamna carried four editorials challenging Modi’s candidature and rooting instead for Sushma Swaraj as PM.
Now, an old-timer admits, “The Lok Sabha polls were fought on the Modi factor, and it remains a factor in the assembly election.”
This article first appeared in print under the headline “Shift in balance between BJP and Uddhav’s Sena after Thackeray”