February 3, 2017 12:07:16 am
Less than 24 hours after Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray announced that his party would fight it alone in the upcoming civic polls in Maharashtra, senior Sena ministers in the BJP-Sena government in the state led a delegation to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to demand the withdrawal of a circular banning display of religious pictures and symbols in government offices and state-run schools. The Sena ministers, including PWD Minister Ekanth Shinde and Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam, threatened that they had their resignation letters ready – “in our pockets”. Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who was part of the delegation, warned, “Nobody can take away the Sena’s voice in Mumbai.”
The BJP, on its part, has deployed its second-rung ministers and leaders to “expose” alleged corruption in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the cash-rich civic body that the Sena has ruled for 19 years.
Every such public sparring between the two allies pushes the relationship further to the brink. This is the first time since 1997, when the two parties first entered into an alliance for the civic polls, that the two parties are fighting separately. Polling for 10 municipal corporations (including BMC), 25 zila parishads and 283 panchayat samitis will be held on February 16 and 21.
The break-up has its roots in the electoral growth of the BJP in the 2014 Assembly elections. While the BJP won 122 seats (to the Sena’s 63), in Mumbai, which has 36 Assembly seats, the BJP won 15 and the Sena 14. That was the first time the BJP beat the Sena on its turf (Mumbai) and so, this time, the BJP demanded 114 seats in the 227-seat BMC. The Sena, however, agreed to give it only 60 seats, reminding its ally about the 2012 elections — then, the BJP had fought on 63 seats and won 32, and the Sena contested 135 seats, of which it won 75. There was no meeting point.
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While the BJP was willing to scale down its demand to 105 seats, Thackeray feared conceding more seats would lead to discontentment within his party, raising questions about his own leadership. The BJP believes it has little to gain from sticking to the Sena – this, the party believes, is a golden opportunity to wrest the BMC from the Sena, especially when the Congress and NCP are on a weak wicket in the state.
In 1989, then Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan decided that an alliance, with Hindutva as a common plank, would consolidate their vote shares and benefit both parties. While the Sena would keep its Marathi vote share intact, the BJP could capitalise on the votes from North Indians and the non-Marathis.
The unwritten formula was that BJP, being a national party, would bring the alliance more seats in the Lok Sabha and the Sena would get more seats in the Assembly. The Sena’s hold in the BMC was never contested.
That changed with the changing ambitions of the two parties. The Sena’s demand for more share in the Lok Sabha in 1996 was reciprocated by the BJP, which sought higher seats in the Assembly in 1999. In 2014, seat sharing proved to be a sticky point yet again and the pre-poll alliance broke. But the two parties joined hands three months after the elections. The Fadnavis Cabinet now has 12 Sena ministers and the Central Cabinet has one minister, Anant Geete, from the Sena.
Why then are the two parties, which increasingly don’t find themselves on the same page, still together?
While the Sena continues to openly attack the BJP, directing its attacks at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no less, the possibility of the party pulling out of the Fadnavis government seems unlikely. In the last two years, the Sena has mastered the art of playing the role of Opposition while being part of the government. Besides, if either the Sena or BJP fails to get a majority in the BMC, they will need each other. Senior Sena leaders believe the decision on whether to withdraw from the government can be put off until six months before the 2019 Assembly elections.
More importantly, there is a third party in this unhappy Sena-BJP relationship: the NCP. The Sena is all too aware of rumours of the NCP’s alleged covert support to the BJP – NCP president Sharad Pawar’s friendship with PM Modi is no secret. The NCP, with its 41 seats in the Assembly, can be crucial in keeping the BJP government afloat.
So for now, it looks like both the partners will stay in the marriage, however unhappy.
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