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Friday, August 19, 2022

Chronicle of Sena-BJP disaffection: How the former allies grew apart

The alliance worked so long as the Thackerays had the upper hand. But things changed once the power balance shifted towards BJP, starting in 2009.

Mumbai: Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis take charge at Mantralaya (the state secretariat), in Mumbai, Thursday, June 30, 2022. (PTI Photo)

On October 29, 2019, at his sprawling official residence “Varsha” in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill area, then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis exuded confidence before a gaggle of reporters about the BJP-Shiv Sena combine’s victory. Fadnavis had invited the reporters to his annual post-Diwali meeting and though the BJP had not done as well as it had hoped, increasing its dependence on the Sena, Fadnavis appeared quite assured about retaining his chair. Asked by reporters, he even clarified that his party had not made any commitment to the Sena about sharing the top post with it.

The statement set alarm bells ringing 16 kilometres away in Bandra East in the two-storeyed bungalow, “Matoshree”, of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. According to the Sena, then BJP president Amit Shah had acceded to the Sena’s demand to share the CM’s chair during a meeting in “Matoshree” on February 19, 2019. The Sena claimed Shah agreed to the demand while tying up a pre-election alliance between the two parties in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Fadnavis’ statement to the media was the beginning of the end of the Mahayuti, or grand alliance, and led to an irrevocable rift between the BJP and the Thackeray-led Sena. It pushed Thackeray into the arms of its old rivals Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress and led to the formation of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government with the Sena president as the CM.

But nearly 31 months later, Fadnavis had the last laugh as a rebellion in the Sena dethroned Thackeray. On Thursday evening, the BJP leader surprised many as he did not claim the CM’s chair as expected and instead announced Eknath Shinde, the Sena leader who led the rebellion against Thackeray, as the chief minister. Fadnavis will serve as Shinde’s deputy in a throwback to the alliance of old between the two parties. But the move raises questions about why the BJP wasted all this time when it could have agreed to Thackeray’s demand and avoided spending over two years in the Opposition. Though some are attributing the current arrangement to realpolitik on the BJP’s part, others see it as yet another strategem to weaken and ultimately decimate the Shiv Sena.

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From frenemies to enemies

The Sena and the BJP are not new frenemies. With Hindutva as the glue that held them together, they formed an electoral alliance only in 1989. In the early years, the Sena used to win a dominant number of seats in the Assembly elections while the BJP bagged more seats in the Lok Sabha polls. This relationship of mutual dependence helped strengthen both of them. So long as the BJP could give the Sena a national profile, it was not averse to helping the saffron party gain ground in the state.

The alliance was a success as the two parties went on to govern the state for nine years and seven months in two separate stints. While the Shiv Sena was the dominant partner between 1995 and 1999, the BJP gained the upper hand from 2014 onwards, with Fadnavis at the helm as CM.

But an analysis of election numbers suggests that the BJP benefited comparatively more than the Sena during their three-decade alliance. The two parties formally contested Assembly elections as allies from 1990 onwards. In the seven Assembly polls since then, the BJP increased its vote share from 10.71 per cent (in 1990) to 25.75 per cent (2019 elections). Its highest vote share of 27.81 per cent was in the 2014 elections when the two parties contested elections alone.


In contrast, the Sena’s vote share was 15.94 per cent in 1990 and in 2019 it was up marginally to 16.41 per cent. Its highest vote share was in 2004 when it managed to poll 19.97 per cent of the votes. In 2014, when the two parties contested alone, the Sena managed to increase its vote share to 19.35 per cent.

In the first couple of decades, the arrangement between the two parties seemed to work as the Sena was the dominant partner in the alliance. BJP leaders at the time such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani had no qualms in agreeing to the Sena’s demands and central BJP leaders also accorded importance to Bal Thackeray by calling on him at “Matoshree”.

But the dynamics began to change in 2009 when BJP became the larger alliance partner by winning 46 seats, two more than the Sena. The party received the Leader of the Opposition’s post that had gone to the Sena till then.


The death of Bal Thackeray in 2012 and the rise of Narendra Modi on the national stage, brought more changes in the relationship between the two parties. Uddhav Thackeray took over as the leader of the Sena, with his two fiercest rivals within the party already having left it seven years earlier. While his cousin Raj Thackeray left to float his own outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, former Chief Minister Narayan Rane joined the Congress.

After the Modi-led BJP came to power in the Centre in 2014, the BJP started playing hardball. With weeks to go for the Assembly elections that year, senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse rang Uddhav on September 29 and threw a bombshell — the BJP had decided to contest the election by itself.

“The BJP’s strategy has always been to muscle out its allies when they show any sign of weakness. They did the same with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party in Goa. When Uddhav fully took over, the BJP felt he was no Bal Thackeray and they could call the shots in the alliance,” said a Shiv Sena leader.

The Shiv Sena emerged as the second-largest party in the 2014 election, behind the BJP. But something was broken in the relationship. Furious with the BJP for contesting the election on its own, the Sena played the role of the leading Opposition party in the Assembly for a month. But some in the Sena old guard, such as Eknath Shinde, were desperate to return to power and pushed the leadership to patch things up with its ally. The BJP, with 122 MLAs, needed the Sena’s help to cross the halfway mark of 144. Finally, Thackeray acquiesced and in December the Sena joined the state government.

But the chasm between the Thackerays and the BJP continued to widen, with the Sena realising that it did not hold the same leverage with its ally as it did in the past. In the 2017 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, the BJP challenged the Sena in what is seen by the Sena as almost its fief. The saffron party breached the Sena citadel by increasing its tally to 82 seats, just two less than the Sena’s 84 seats. In the run-up to the elections, the BJP crossed the Rubicon by sanctioning its leaders like Kirit Somaiyya, Thackeray’s bête noire, to attack the Sena president and raise questions about his finances.


The final nail in the coffin was Fadnavis’ statement to the media that October day in 2019. The BJP afterwards played the waiting game in the belief that the MVA coalition would fall apart but it did not seem to come to pass. Now, having brought about a change in the government with Shinde and his band of rebel legislators on its side, it remains to be seen what the dynamics between the two sides will be like going forward. Now, with Shinde and his band of rebel legislators having brought about a change in government, the curtain is well and truly down on the saga of the BJP and the Thackeray-led Sena.

First published on: 01-07-2022 at 07:29:58 am
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