In politics, there are often two ways to neutralise a challenge. One, by denying the contender what he or she is looking for. The other, by offering something that is not required. MNS chief Raj Thackeray has done the latter in a bid to stump his main rival, the Shiv Sena. His decision to extend support to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was so timed that it not only put the BJP’s oldest ally on the defensive, but also set a cat among the saffron pigeons.
That the over two-decade-old Sena-BJP alliance has been facing wear and tear is no longer a secret. One of the reasons is the way it is structured. According to the formula worked out, the BJP gets a bigger share of the seats in the Lok Sabha elections while the Sena retains a larger chunk of the state assembly seats. Out of Maharashtra’s 48 parliamentary seats, the BJP gets 26 and the Sena gets the rest. When it comes to the 288-member state assembly, the Sena gets to fight 171 seats while 117 are for the BJP. Interestingly, the number of seats each party contests has remained the same and, in most cases, the constituencies have not been changed either.
There was a fundamental flaw in this arrangement. It overlooked the fact that political arrangements are never static. It has resulted in a major handicap for the BJP, for it cannot expand its base in the 171 constituencies marked for the Sena. It’s not that the BJP wasn’t aware of this impediment when it surrendered to then Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s diktat. It accepted the secondary role because it had faith in the maverick Sena supremo. Things began to change when age started catching up with him. Once one of the most powerful leaders of the state, the Sena chief was helpless in his last years. Having had to face the deaths of his eldest son and wife, and with another son deserting him, the Sena chief was left with only one son, Uddhav, to rely on. These developments in Bal Thackeray’s personal life help us understand some of the decisions he was forced to take.
The biggest of these was anointing Uddhav as his successor in 2003, even though in the past he had made it abundantly clear that his nephew, Raj, would be heir to his political empire. Uddhav’s elevation signalled structural changes in the Sena. Till then, the Sena had been a loose organisation of lumpen elements. Uddhav tried to make it a more accommodative, more acceptable right-of-centre outfit. It was during his regime that the Sena tried to rope in Hindi- speaking leaders and launched campaigns like “Me Mumbaikar” to win over north Indians. In an outfit known for its street politics, and even for violence, Uddhav’s methodical debate-discussion approach was a complete mismatch. Many old timers were not comfortable with the Sena’s ideology transplant. Some of them started questioning Bal Thackeray’s choice of successor.
The strongest among them was Narayan Rane, one of the real Sena-style rabble rousers. In 1999, towards the end of the Sena-BJP rule, Rane had been chief minister for a brief period. Resourceful Rane was too strong a leader for Uddhav to handle. So he started clipping Rane’s wings. Rane, in turn, took the then Sena chief’s son head on. Still active then, senior Thackeray did very little to contain the unrest. It finally resulted in Rane’s ouster. A few months later, in December 2005, came the real jolt. Raj walked out of the Thackeray fold. Once Bal Thackeray’s heir apparent, Raj had witnessed complete marginalisation in the party, which forced him to form his own Sena, the MNS. Since then, Raj has had a single-point agenda: outsmart the Shiv Sena in every possible way.
And Uddhav, till now, has only helped Raj in achieving his goal. Unlike his father, Uddhav doesn’t share a good, or even workable, rapport with anyone.
Always insecure, Uddhav even stayed cut off from the old partymen, large sections of whom started drifting towards the more accessible Raj. Apart from the partymen, Uddhav left the BJP frustrated. His style of functioning has been to remain incommunicado for weeks, if not months, even when it came to the senior-most leaders of the BJP. This left the allies irritated. Phone calls from BJP leaders went unattended and messages were not replied to. All this was tolerated as long as Bal Thackeray was alive. His death in 2012 emboldened the BJP, which started questioning Uddhav’s theatrics and politics.
It was during this period that Raj cosied up to the BJP. Several BJP leaders even publicly stated the need to have Raj on board. Young turks from the saffron camp thought of dumping the tepid, dated and fatigued Sena for the MNS and had almost finalised the deal. But the BJP’s pro-Raj brigade was overruled by the likes of L.K. Advani and others who had Parliament in mind. It has resulted in an invisible split within the BJP, with one faction favouring Raj while the other advises caution, at least till the Lok Sabha elections are over. The pro-Raj faction accuses the “status-quoists” of surrendering their pride for a few parliamentary seats. With a steep and sustained fall in the Sena’s strike rate, the pro-Raj faction has questioned the pro-Sena leaders’ political wisdom.
The BJP, however, has much at stake. With one of its biggest battles a few weeks away, it is looking to add every possible MP. It is in no mood, or position, to take a call on the continuation of its alliance with the Sena. Though it wants to have Raj’s MNS on board, it doesn’t want to hurt Uddhav’s ego at this critical juncture. Raj, having sensed the BJP’s inability to formalise an alliance, has chosen to irk the Sena by announcing unilateral support for Modi. His decision caught the Sena completely off-guard, because it means that Raj will be fielding MNS candidates only against it. Inevitably, this has only widened the existing gulf between the two saffron members.
For Raj and Uddhav, the bigger battle lies in the state assembly elections scheduled to be held in October this year. With the split wide open, Maharashtra is likely to witness the rise of one Thackeray while the other one steps into a political wilderness.
The writer is editor, ‘Loksatta’