Rumblings in Maharashtras BJP-Shiv Sena alliance and MNS carry portents for 2014
These are tough times for the NDA,or whatever is left of it. The BJP would have surely expected trouble from its Bihar partner,but it did not expect much adverse activity from its beleaguered partner in Maharashtra,the Shiv Sena. That is exactly what it got recently,when the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamanaa chose to hit at Narendra Modi for his one-upmanship in the wake of the Uttarakhand tragedy. A little earlier,while the intra-party drama within the BJP was unfolding,the Shiv Sena had suggested that the BJP should better turn to Sushma Swaraj for the key leadership role. These developments confirm that all is not well within the saffron alliance in Maharashtra.
The recent developments have come in the backdrop of sustained BJP efforts to bring the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS),the breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena,into the alliance. Maharashtras politics today witnesses a complex love (and hate) triangle. The BJP wants the MNS to be on board; its partner,the Shiv Sena,does not want it,but may tolerate it since it wants to retain the alliance with the BJP. The MNS does not want to ally with anyone,but might talk business with the BJP,provided the latter snubs the Shiv Sena.
The Sena-BJP alliance is the oldest continuing alliance in Indian politics outside of the Left Front. The two parties came together in 1989 much before the grand strategy of forging the NDA came to fruition. Theirs was not an alliance of mere convenience. It was seen as an alliance of Hindutva forces in the state. This is the silver jubilee of the alliance but there is no evidence of jubilation over that inside both parties.
In these 25-odd years,the Shiv Sena and the BJP have managed to change the structure of party competition in Maharashtra. They first sent the Congress on to the back foot (1990),then wrested power from the near-invincible Maharashtra Congress (1995),and even when out of power since 1999,the alliance has forced the Congress and the NCP to remain unwilling partners. The Sena-BJP alliance has not allowed a comfortable victory to the Congress-NCP alliance so far.
But things have been adrift for some time now. Ever since the Shiv Sena split in 2005 over the leadership issue and Raj Thackeray formed his own party,it started getting awkward for the saffron alliance. Even in Bal Thackerays lifetime,Nitin Gadkari suggested that the MNS be taken on board the Sena-BJP alliance. But Thackeray senior vetoed this. He could not be easily overruled by the BJP. In the 2009 elections,the Shiv Sena went through a bad patch,both in the Lok Sabha and in the state assembly a few months later. While the MNS ate into its Marathi voter base by polling 21 per cent votes in the Mumbai-Thane urban region,the Shiv Sena lost in Marathwada as well (and that had nothing to do with the MNS). This certainly made it the weaker partner in the alliance.
It also lost to the BJP the position of the leader of opposition in the assembly. Sensing trouble,the Shiv Sena staged its own coup by bringing Ramdas Athavale and his RPI faction into the Hindutva alliance. This had a double purpose to counter the BJP efforts to dominate the alliance and to woo Dalit voters loyal to Athavale. The latter is,of course,an enigma,because Athavale has been contesting elections as a Congress/ NCP partner since 1990 and one does not know the extent of his voter base independent of the Congress.
For its part,the BJP in the state feels the Shiv Sena is a spent force,and that,on its own,it cannot be an optimum partner,and the MNS and its firebrand leader Raj Thackeray can be an asset. Internally,the state BJP is vertically divided between two of its national level leaders Gopinath Munde and Gadkari. The latter has been active in bringing the MNS into the alliance. The MNS inside the alliance would further offset Mundes clout,both in the state and within the larger coalition.
What is the net worth of the MNS? In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls,it could not win any seats but polled four per cent votes and dented the critical Sena-BJP constituency of middle and lower middle classes from Mumbai and Thane. In the assembly elections,it polled almost six per cent votes with 13 seats. Thus,apart from marginalising the already weak Shiv Sena,and strengthening one faction within the BJP,the MNS is expected to bring a few more seats for the NDA. Last time around,the Shiv Sena and BJP together won 20 of the 48 seats from the state. As a state only third in terms of LS seats,the importance of Maharashtra can hardly be exaggerated for the coming parliamentary elections. It is also one of those states not ruled by BJP,where the BJP would expect to perform much better in order to make its bid for national power. In 1996 and 1999,the Sena-BJP together polled 38.5 per cent votes and won 33 and 28 seats respectively. For its national-level ambition,the BJP must ensure that it (along with allies) registers a similar performance in 2014. With a weakened Sena,that is unlikely to happen. Ideally,the BJP would have hoped to altogether dump the Shiv Sena and win over the MNS to its side,but that would be a risky gameplan since the actual electoral worth of the MNS remains to be tested.
So,there is a desperate attempt to coax the Shiv Sena into agreeing to have the MNS in the alliance. Some time ago,the Shiv Sena indicated that it might be willing to have the MNS as a partner but the MNS did not respond,or responded in a manner that ensured the Sena would now spurn any efforts to have the MNS on board. Besides,having the MNS in the coalition would mean that the Shiv Sena would have to share its seat quota with the MNS and the Athavale faction,reducing the Shiv Sena to a much less significant partner even if the BJP comes to power. This leaves the BJP in a quandary. If it forces the entry of the MNS into the coalition,that would lead to much heart burning and loss of seats,and if it leaves the the MNS out of the coalition,it risks entering the contest only with a weak (and perhaps non-performing) partner.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune