The decision of the Shiv Sena to split from its long-time ally, the BJP, has been taken after long and hard deliberations. With just over a year to go before the 2019 general elections, the Shiv Sena leadership carefully weighed the pros and cons before going public on its intended divorce yesterday, the birth anniversary of Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray.
But it is important to understand the background of this alliance that has held strong for nearly three decades, right from the time BJP strategist Pramod Mahajan reached out to Thackeray, the Shiv Sena’s tiger, in the late 1980s and cemented the relationship that was so fruitful to both parties all through the 1990s.
Under normal circumstances, the rise of the BJP across the country and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive brand of politics would have helped the Shiv Sena expand and consolidate its presence in Maharashtra.
But when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was at its peak through the Eighties and Nineties, Narendra Modi was not a national figure, nor was he in the good books of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Mahajan, also, was quite critical of Modi. However, either the Gods were busy playing dice and weren’t paying much attention to earthly politics, or had left the game to mortals down here, politics in the BJP began to take on a shape of its own. Lal Krishna Advani began to campaign and promote Modi. Perhaps, he wanted an ally of his own in the BJP?
With the 2014 elections, the direction changed again. Modi and Amit Shah, it began to seem, did not want anyone to share the glory of an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha or the spoils of power. If the BJP had not secured 282 seats on its own, the alliance between the BJP and the Shiv Sena would have continued. The Sena’s seats would have added to the BJP’s numbers in the Lok Sabha.
But the BJP’s absolute majority appeared to go to its head. Almost immediately after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Shiv Sena and particularly its chief Uddhav Thackeray, began to feel that they were being sidelined, if not humiliated.
The 2014 election’s war general Amit Shah began to signal that the BJP did not need the Sena anymore. The alliance collapsed just a few days before the Maharashtra assembly elections in October 2014. Then it turned out that Shah, just before initiating the divorce with the Sena, had negotiated a deal with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Within hours of the break-up of the saffron alliance, the NCP pulled out of its pact with the Congress.
The NCP was supposed to be the reserve force of the BJP, meant to add ballast to the party in case its numbers fell short and it was unable to form the government. But Shah, super confident after winning 71+2 (two Apna Dal seats in eastern UP merged with the BJP after the polls) seats in Uttar Pradesh, thought the BJP could secure its own majority in Maharashtra. And in case it needed the numbers, he felt, Pawar would bail the BJP out. But the game did not go the way Shah wanted. Perhaps the gods were playing their own game of dice elsewhere.
The BJP won 122 seats in the Maharashtra assembly, short of 23 seats to form government. And although NCP leader Praful Patel publicly announced that his party would not let the government fall in case the Shiv Sena threw a tantrum, the party refused to join the BJP-led government. No wonder Modi’s first visit outside Delhi, after taking over as PM, was to Baramati, the Pawar stronghold in Maharashtra, now held by his daughter, Supriya Sule. During that visit Modi publicly praised the “statesman-like qualities” of Pawar and said the Maratha strongman was his guru in politics.
The Shiv Sena began to watch the game with the nervousness of a wife, whose husband had brought another woman home. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, obviously under instructions, offered relatively insignificant portfolios to the Sena. Even when a major portfolio like Industry was given to the Sena, it was made clear to the party that the final decisions rested with the CM. It was clear that the Shiv Sena’s wings were being clipped. The message was loud and clear: We don’t really need you. We will, of course, tolerate you.
The Shiv Sena leadership feared that Modi and Shah’s aggressive brand of politics could entice its own MLAs into abandoning the mother ship and joining the BJP. In fact, several Sena politicians began to openly hobnob with Chief Minister Fadnavis, ignoring their own leader Uddhav Thackeray.
But the Sena wasn’t going to give up so easily, so it began to counter attack. Almost everyday, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, ‘Samna’, began to attack Narendra Modi or Amit Shah in its columns. Almost every piece had the same subtext : We too don’t really need you.
Around six months ago, when the Modi government was celebrating its first anniversary in power, it began to be strongly rumoured that the Congress, the NCP and Shiv Sena would come together to form a working alliance and topple the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra. But “Project Topple Fadnavis” was shelved at the last minute as the Sena feared the NCP may double-cross it and leave it even lonelier than it was before.
This backdrop must be understood to understand the Sena-BJP break-up today. Over the last three years, the two parties have been like a family with two kitchens and virtually no dialogue with each other. It had come to such a pass that the only question that remained was, who will pull the plug. Uddhav Thackeray and other senior members of the Sena were convinced that Amit Shah would jettison the alliance. After all, both parties had fought Mumbai Corporation elections separately. And when the Sena did not get its own majority, the BJP refused help. It was clear to the Sena leadership that the BJP would break the alliance when elections came around.
So instead of facing another round of humiliation, the Shiv Sena decided it was better to strike now, to surprise the other side. So on the birth anniversary of Balasaheb Thackeray, on January 23, Uddhav Thackeray announced that the Sena would henceforth go it alone. The fact that he did not immediately withdraw from the government is because he is still keeping his options until polls are held in 2019.
Uddhav’s message is clear. He wants to tell Modi and Shah that “Tiger Zinda Hai”! That the Shiv Sena was born on the street and lives and fights on the street. It has neither Shah’s cunning, nor Pawar’s cleverness. Its power doesn’t come from sitting in the Mantralaya, but from its Shiv Sainiks.
The Sena leadership feels that the results of the Gujarat elections have exposed the chinks in the BJP armour. In public speeches Uddhav Thackeray has begun to publicly say that Modi is rapidly losing his media-managed charisma, and that demonetisation and GST were disastrous policies. The Sena mouthpiece ‘Samna’ has even started praising Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.
The marriage was on the rocks, anyway. Now the date has been announced for filing divorce affidavits.
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