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Why is BJP keen on alliance with Shiv Sena despite repeated humiliation?

For the BJP, being with the Shiv Sena is critical to holding off the Congress-NCP alliance. For the Shiv Sena, breaking away from BJP poses an existential threat.

Shiv Sena, BJP, lok sabha elections, shiv sena bjp alliance, 2019 general election, uddhav thackeray, maharashtra, amit shah, narendra modi, india news, devendra fadnavis, indian express Uddhav Thackeray with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis in Mumbai in 2014. (Pradip Das/Express Archive)

Why is the BJP keen on an alliance with the Shiv Sena despite being repeatedly humiliated by it?

No option, is the obvious answer. With the situation in Uttar Pradesh rapidly changing with the coming together of the SP and BSP, the BJP desperately needs a state that can help it retain power at the Centre. If UP, with 80 seats in Lok Sabha, is the most important state for any dispensation, Maharashtra, with 48 seats, follows right behind. For the BJP, Maharashtra is all the more crucial because in UP, the party can only go downhill. Having pocketed 73 out of 80 seats (with its ally Apna Dal) in 2014, it is almost impossible for the BJP to better its performance in the state. (The NDA now has 70 seats in UP, having lost the Lok Sabha byelections in Kairana, Phulpur and Gorakhpur.)

The reality of hard numbers has compelled the BJP to stick with the Sena, one of its oldest partners. In 2014, the saffron combine won as many as 41 seats out of 48, with the Sena bagging 18. More importantly, the Sena won 20.82% of the vote, against the BJP’s 27%. If the allies were to contest separately, the Sena would undoubtedly be a major loser — but it will also hurt the BJP. At a time when the Congress (18.29% in 2014) and the NCP (16.12%) have already formed a united front, this is a blow the BJP cannot afford.

Does this mean a powerful national party has surrendered before a minor regional player?

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While it may seem this way, it isn’t really so. To those who are familiar with the Sena’s swing politics, the mending of fences with the BJP comes as no surprise. The break-up of the alliance, despite having seemed imminent on several occasions, was never really on the cards. The BJP leadership, from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to party chief Amit Shah, was fully aware of the Sena’s limited options and did not, therefore, pay heed to its criticism and complaints, or make an effort to dispel its apprehensions. The BJP knows that the predicament of the Sena is bigger than the BJP’s. Their alliance is a perfect marriage of (in)convenience, in which both partners prefer the pain of staying together to going their separate ways, which would be even more painful.

But why has the Sena lost so much ground in Maharashtra?

The answer lies in the rapidly changing political situation in Maharashtra, in which the Sena is trying hard to stay relevant. The Sena was born with a call to save the Marathi Manoos from the incessant onslaught of migrants who were hogging jobs in Mumbai. This message worked as long as it retained resonance, and the Sena was honest in its mission. Its arm Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti shepherded jobless Marathi youth to multinational corporations, big industrial houses, and even PSUs, and was extremely popular in Marathi households. In the sixties and seventies, Marathi youth flocked to the Sena.


Things changed after the mills strike in Mumbai in 1982. Mill owners, mainly Gujaratis and Marwaris, used Sena supremo Bal Thackeray to neutralise the appeal of the firebrand labour leader Datta Samant. The strike changed both Mumbai’s complexion and the Sena’s political character. Mumbai witnessed the mass exodus of out-of-work Maharashtrian mill workers to their homes elsewhere in the state. And there was a massive influx of cheap labour into the city, mainly from North India, to cater to the demands of the rising real estate sector. Over time, the Sena lost a chunk of its appeal for the Marathi population, which itself declined significantly in Mumbai.

How did the Shiv Sena respond to this situation?

It jumped on to the Hindutva bandwagon. In the eighties, as the BJP inaugurated Hindutva politics on the national stage, it looked for a regional partner — and guided by a skilful matchmaker like Pramod Mahajan, it found an ideal ally in the Sena. The Sena asserted its Hindutva agenda by openly supporting the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, and took credit for the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In the 1995 Assembly elections, their alliance dethroned the Congress for the first time in Maharashtra, and remained in power until 1999, with first Manohar Joshi and then Narayan Rane of the Sena as Chief Minister. In 1999, when state elections were held along with Lok Sabha polls, the allies decided that the Sena would contest 171 seats in the Assembly, leaving 117 for the BJP — while at the Centre, the BJP would be the senior partner. The alliance lost, but the allies stayed together — mainly because Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani, and most importantly, Mahajan, shared a great rapport with Bal Thackeray. They fought the 2004 polls too, on the 171-117 formula — but lost again. And at the Centre, the NDA too, was defeated.

Read: BJP not desperate for alliance: Devendra Fadnavis

Why and when did their relationship deteriorate?

The rise of Narendra Modi made the real difference. Until the advent of Modi, the saffron camp had only one “Hindu Hriday Samrat” — Thackeray. In 2012, the ailing Sena supremo passed away, and as the BJP expanded, it cut into the Sena’s space. The new BJP leadership made it clear that it did not believe in sharing and cooperating — its slogan “Shat Pratishat BJP (100% BJP)” has rattled the Sena, which has seen the BJP growing at its expense. The Sena’s insecurity has manifested itself in continuous sabre-rattling.

But what stops the Sena from cutting ties and walking away from the BJP?

It is likely to face a two-way split if it chooses that option. One section of the Sena will be absorbed in the BJP, while the Congress and NCP will target the rump aggressively. The Sena’s anti-migrant stand makes it untouchable for the Congress and NCP. The Sena has little choice — its alliance with the BJP will, therefore, stay. At least until it is overwhelmed by the law of diminishing returns.

First published on: 29-01-2019 at 12:47:27 am
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