After forming its government in Maharashtra in alliance with the rebel Shiv Sena faction led by Eknath Shinde, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on an ambitious plan in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, setting itself a target of 45 parliamentary and 200-plus Assembly seats in the state.
Since its inception on April 6, 1980, the BJP (whose erstwhile avatar was the Jana Sangh) has not been able to reach the simple majority mark of 145 seats in the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly so far.
For a sizeable haul out of the 48 Lok Sabha seats from the state too, the saffron party had earlier banked on its estranged ally, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena, which is now its arch rival.
If BJP insiders are to be believed, “Shatpratishat Bhajpa (100 per cent BJP)”, remains the party’s ultimate objective in the state. A senior BJP functionary said, “Sometimes we have to focus on a short-term plan to achieve long-term goals,” indicating that the BJP’s “desperate bid” to forge an alliance with the breakaway Shinde faction was a “strategic political decision” taken in view of the 2024 parliamentary polls.
In the Lok Sabha seats tally, Maharashtra comes second with 48 seats after Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for 80 seats.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, amid the Narendra Modi wave, the BJP bagged 23 seats in Maharashtra. In the 2019 polls, the party retained this tally in the state. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the party won 133 seats while in the 2019 elections its tally dipped to 105 seats.
Going by the state’s existing political scene, marked with its own complexities and sharp dividing lines, the BJP leaders reckon that the party will not be able to achieve its overarching targets on its own steam, for which taking the Shinde faction on board is a “political necessity”.
After the 2019 Assembly polls, when the Sena severed its alliance with the BJP and joined hands with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress to form their Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, the BJP was reduced to the principal Opposition’s position.
During the initial phase of the Uddhav-led MVA’s rule, the dominant mood in the BJP was that the party should play the Opposition’s role aggressively for the next five years and should go solo in the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. The party believed then that the anti-incumbency factor and the MVA’s contradictions would power it to clinch both the 2024 polls.
However, as the MVA government was nearing its 2.5 years, the BJP leadership seemed to veer round to the view that the rival coalition’s continuation at the helm would result in its consolidation, which would make the BJP’s task to dislodge it from power more difficult for years.
The BJP thus set its “Operation Lotus” into motion, succeeding in splintering the Sena and getting the Shinde-led group with 40 rebels out of the total 55 Sena MLAs on board, which led to the collapse of the MVA government. The only price the BJP had to pay in the process was to concede the Chief Minister’s chair to Shinde despite being the senior partner. The Sena split also played out at the parliamentary level as 12 of its total 18 Lok Sabha MPs joined the Shinde camp.
As the two Sena factions battle it out in various forums such as the Supreme Court and the Election Commission over their conflicting claims of being the “real Sena”, a question doing the rounds in state political circles is whether the Shinde Sena would be able to retain its separate identity or it would eventually merge with the BJP ahead of the 2024 polls.
As of now, the BJP would want the Shinde faction to take on the Uddhav Sena at all levels and push the latter to the margins of state politics. Apparently, the saffron party would not like to be seen as a party which has ensured the unravelling of the Bal Thackeray-founded outfit committed to the Hindutva ideology.
BJP sources say the party has set a target of 400-plus seats out of the total 545 Lok Sabha seats in the 2024 general elections, listing 123 seats where it is “very weak” that include 16 from Maharashtra, such as 4 NCP-held seats, Baramati (Supriya Sule), Shirur ( Amol Kolhe), Raigad (Sunil Tatkare) and Satara (Shrinivas Patil); 1 Congress seat, Chandrapur (Dhanorkar); several Uddhav Sena seats like Parbhani (Sanjay Jadhav), Mumbai North West (Gajanan Kirtikar), Mumbai South (Arvind Sawant), Thane ( Rajan Vichare), Osmanabad (Omraje Nimbslkar) and Vinayak Raut (Ratnagiri Sindhudurg); and 1 AIMIM seat, Aurangabad (Imtiaz Jaleel).
BJP sources said, “The plan to focus aggressively on these 16 seats with help of the central leadership was planned even before the Shinde-BJP alliance came to power.”
Senior BJP leader and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis said, “Our responsibilities have doubled. The BJP will not only ensure success for its own candidates but also ensure every candidate representing Shinde faction wins in the next elections.”
As part of its roadmap for the coming months, the BJP has decided to deploy its Union ministers to tour some of these key constituencies. For this month, Union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur will visit Kalyan while Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will tour Baramati, the NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s home turf represented by his daughter Supriya Sule in the Lok Sabha.
Interestingly, the Kalyan Lok Sabha constituency is represented by Shrikant Shinde, son of CM Shinde. The BJP’s aggression may cause some discomfort in the Shinde camp. However, the party’s stated objective is to boost Shrikant Shinde’s prospects. A Rs 1000-crore township plan in Kalyan is high on the state government’s agenda, which could not be achieved without the Centre’s help. A BJP strategist said: “The party cannot afford at this point to antagonise Eknath Shinde. As he remains our best bet for our bid to score a higher success rate in 2024 polls. The Union minister’s tour is planned with the purpose to review and bring mega projects in such select constituencies.”
At the same time, Sitharaman’s Baramati visit has been planned to send out a signal to the Opposition that the BJP is taking the battle to their strongholds.