Twelve days after the BJP and Shiv Sena together won 161 seats in the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly, the pre-poll allies have not been able to form their government, as the Sena has made demands that the BJP has found difficult to accommodate.
Despite being partners for the major part of three decades, the relationship between the parties has been under almost constant strain — this is because the ideological affinity that brings them together also pits them against each other in a contest for broadly the same political space.
Thirty years ago
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections of 1989, the Sena and BJP forged their first pre-poll alliance on the Hindutva platform. For the BJP, the key interlocutor was Pramod Mahajan, who had good equations with Sena founder Bal Thackeray. The BJP did not have a presence in Maharashtra at the time, and hoped to piggyback on the regional ally; the Sena wanted to harness the BJP’s Hindutva appeal for gains in what was then a Congress stronghold.
As the national party, the BJP contested more seats in the Lok Sabha election (1989), and agreed to leave the bigger share for the Sena in the Assembly polls the following year. Of the 183 seats the Sena contested, it won 52; the BJP won 42 of its 104. Manohar Joshi became Leader of Opposition but was soon challenged by Chhagan Bhujbal of his own party; in 1991, Bhujbal joined the Congress, and the post went to the BJP.
Bickering in power
The saffron allies leveraged the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the March 1993 Bombay blasts in a communally charged, polarising campaign against the Congress in the Assembly election of 1995. The Sena won 73 seats and the BJP 65 — and in accordance with Bal Thackeray’s formula that the ally with the higher number of seats would have its Chief Minister, Joshi got the top job and Gopinath Munde of the BJP became his deputy and Home Minister.
The two parties quarrelled frequently over policy — and the alliance was shaken after Raj Thackeray, then the Sena’s rising star and Thackeray’s political heir apparent, came under a cloud in the Ramesh Kini case of 1996. (Raj Thackeray, accused in the alleged conspiracy to drive Kini to suicide, was later acquitted.)
Tensions out of power
The allies fought the Assembly elections of 1999 together, but each tried to defeat the other’s candidates so that it could win more seats than its ally and claim the chief ministership. The Sena ended up with 69 MLAs against the BJP’s 56, and believed that the remaining numbers could be made up subsequently. But the BJP was not keen, and there was talk that Munde wanted to become Chief Minister.
The allies negotiated unsuccessfully for 23 days, at the end of which Sharad Pawar’s NCP, which had broken away from the Congress months earlier, formed a coalition government with the Congress with Vilasrao Deshmukh as Chief Minister. During the long spell in the Opposition that followed, the Sena and BJP could not agree on many issues — and the permanent state of tension was captured in Mahajan’s ambition to see a “shat-pratishat (100%) BJP” Maharashtra, and Thackeray’s retort that “Kamalabai was blooming in the state only because of Shiv Sena”.
Even so, the parties decided to get back together for the Assembly elections of 2004 — and the Sena won 62 seats; BJP 54. In 2005, Narayan Rane, a former Chief Minister of the Sena-BJP government, walked over to the Congress from the Sena along with a dozen MLAs, and the BJP made an unsuccessful bid for the post of Leader of Opposition.
In 2009, as the Congress-NCP stormed back to power, the saffron tally dropped sharply. But for the first time in 20 years, the BJP’s 46 seats were two more than the Sena’s tally in the Assembly — and the BJP had the post of Leader of Opposition.
Change in the balance
In 2002, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked for “raj dharma” to be followed in Gujarat, Thackeray had backed the then Chief Minister of the state: “Modi gaya toh Gujarat gaya,” the Sena supremo had said. It is ironical that it was the rise of the new “Hindu Hriday Samrat” in Narendra Modi that tilted the balance in the Maharashtra alliance decisively towards the BJP.
Emboldened by the Modi wave in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the BJP sought to drive a hard seat-sharing bargain for the Assembly polls — which ended with the parties going on their own for the first time in 25 years. As the Congress and NCP too had split, multicorner election battles followed. The Sena won 63 seats, the BJP 122, and Devendra Fadnavis became Chief Minister. After sitting in the Opposition for some time, the Sena joined the government and was given 12 mostly insignificant portfolios.
Compelled to play second fiddle in the alliance, the Sena repeatedly attacked the BJP even while it was part of governments at both the Centre and the state — on demonetisation, Rafale, and the implementation of farm loan waivers in Maharashtra. Uddhav Thackeray said that the Sena had “wasted” a quarter century with the BJP, and the parties contested the BMC elections of 2017 separately amid a lot of bitterness.
Sena’s unexpected prize
As the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 approached, both parties felt a need to get back together. In February, Fadnavis announced that there would be equal sharing of “post and responsibilities” in the state government, among other things. The results, however, underlined the enduring strength of Modi’s appeal — and the Sena accepted a smaller share of seats in the Assembly polls, while the BJP dropped hints about eyeing a majority on its own.
But the Assembly results were very different. The BJP’s tally fell to 105 from the 122 it won in 2014, and the Sena, despite coming down from 63 to 56 itself, was suddenly back in a position to call the shots. With the BJP now dependent on the Sena, Uddhav said on the day of the results that he wanted a 50-50 powersharing formula — including the CM post, as had been decided before the Lok Sabha elections.
The term of the current Assembly ends on November 9.