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Why BJP’s relationship with Shiv Sena has grown so bitter

🔴 Girish Kuber writes: The Sena’s blend of regionalism and religion could provide a template for other parties and eat into BJP’s vote bank

Written by Girish Kuber |
Updated: January 28, 2022 9:23:58 am
The answer lies in the BJP’s recent realisation that if allowed to succeed, the Maharashtra model could become a template for other states and regional parties to follow. (C R Sasikumar)

A new war of words between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, partners who once had the longest surviving alliance, has brought an important dimension to the fore in an already heated political field: To halt the BJP’s nationalism agenda, religion coupled with regionalism could come in handy for various regional outfits.

This is the fact that comes out of the recent confrontation between the Shiv Sena and the BJP, triggered by Maharashtra chief minister and Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s statement dubbing the BJP’s Hindutva as “phoney”. Of late, his party’s consistent effort has been to paint the BJP as “anti-Maharashtra”. The BJP retaliated in equally strong words with former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis questioning the Sena’s commitment to the Hindu cause, besides questioning its loyalty to the state’s welfare. Having spent two decades together under the saffron flag, one wonders why the two former partners are becoming increasingly bitter about each other. The answer has little to do with the Sena thwarting the BJP’s plan to retain power in the state after the 2019 state assembly election. Neither does it have anything to do with the Sena’s growing ambition and the BJP’s refusal to accept this reality.

The answer lies in the BJP’s recent realisation that if allowed to succeed, the Maharashtra model could become a template for other states and regional parties to follow. In order to counter the BJP’s nationalism, the Sena is trying to portray it as “anti-Maharashtra”. To underline this, the party is using every possible trick, from talking about the BJP’s non-Marathi Mumbai head, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, to painting the BJP’s anti-government agitation in the state on various issues as its bias against Maharashtra. This is the Sena’s deliberate attempt to invoke regional pride to take on the BJP’s national pride.

A year after the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance made a surprising deal to deprive the BJP of power in Maharashtra, the Delhi and West Bengal assembly elections witnessed similar tactics being used by the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress, respectively. In Delhi, the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal resorted to singing the Hanuman Chalisa and Mamata chanted the Chandi Path to showcase their Hindu credentials. In both elections, the blend of religion and regionalism neutralised the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK used a similar tactic to foil the BJP’s plan to make headway in the southern state by piggybacking on the AIADMK.

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Compared to these two, however, the wound inflicted by the Sena is much bigger and deeper and more difficult, if not impossible, to heal. In losing the Sena, the BJP lost not only an ally as well as power in the state of Maharashtra, but it has, perhaps inadvertently, also created a space for another player to stake a claim on what was so far the BJP’s singular hold on the Hindutva pie. The dawning of this truth has made the BJP edgier and its frustration can be seen ahead of the five crucial state assembly polls. It is a challenge that is larger than merely winning or losing one state.

The question is: Could this phenomenon be compared with the Congress that slowly ceded its space to other secular parties? This began post-Emergency, with the rise of the Janata Party which was, incidentally, led by former Congressman Jayaprakash Narayan. The assassination of Indira Gandhi and, later, of Rajiv Gandhi, expedited the process that resulted in the rise of Congress offshoots in various states, the most recent being the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra. Each of them in reality holds a sphere of influence limited to one state. But all of them put together were big enough to shrink the Congress’s space at the national level. It took the Congress a few years to realise that its secular space is slowly slipping away.

Ditto with the BJP — it took defeats in a few state assembly elections for the party to register something similar. It all began in Maharashtra, where the Sena didn’t give up the Hindutva plank and still joined hands with the Congress and the NCP. The BJP didn’t take the Sena seriously initially and looked at its alliance as a desperate attempt by power-hungry parties to come together. It also thought that the new experiment would be short-lived and would fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. But it hasn’t. The BJP expected the Congress and the NCP to object to the Sena’s pro-Hindu past. But that was not to happen. Both parties from the secular camp adjusted to this new reality and accommodated the Sena, ignoring its communal history.

The first alarm bell rang in the BJP’s camp after Thackeray visited Ayodhya upon completing 100 days of his three-party government in 2021. While the BJP was yet to come to terms with this reality, Thackeray categorically stated, “Hindutva is not the BJP. We are all equally proud Hindus.” At Ayodhya, Thackeray announced a donation of Rs 1 crore from the Sena trust for the construction of the Ram temple. Incidentally this was his third visit, the first two being in 2018 and 2019 when he was with the BJP. Now, the Sena’s stand has created a situation where, for the first time in Maharashtra, what was hitherto seen as the BJP’s right over the Hindutva vote bank is possibly being challenged.

This is precisely the reason why the acrimony between the two is getting louder. And unlike other parties which dabble in “soft Hindutva”, the Sena’s version is as masculine as the BJP believes its Hindutva is. Unlike the Congress, the Sena never wasted time in articulating the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. It brazenly showcased its role in bringing down the Babri mosque. After all it was the Sena that gave India its first Hindu hriday samrat in its founder, the late Bal Thackeray.

The irony is that it was the BJP that accommodated the Shiv Sena in the Hindutva fold after it lost its Marathi plank in the 1990s, thanks to the 10-year-long mill workers’ strike which drove the Marathi manoos out of Mumbai in large numbers. The Sena’s role in that strike was always in question. Rejuvenated by the BJP’s Hindutva politics, it’s the same Sena that is now bringing back its time-tested regionalism with a dash of religion to make the cocktail even more volatile and, in the bargain, defeat the BJP’s unblended use of religion.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 28, 2022 under the title ‘Dash of region, pinch of saffron’. The writer is editor, Loksatta

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