Part of the BJP’s troubles in Maharashtra is the result of its domineering stance towards allies.
Rudimentary essentials are often either forgotten or deliberately overlooked due to the hype and din that accompanies political developments in India in recent years. The Election Commission of India debatably declared recently that the Eknath Shinde-led faction was the “real” Shiv Sena and allotted it the party’s election symbol -- the bow and arrow. This predictably generated a lot of heat and dust not only in Maharashtra but across the country, with one lot hailing the order and the other citing it as another instance of the commission favouring the ruling establishment. But amid the raucously conducted “search” for the truth, or which side was “correct”, it was completely missed that the state of Maharashtra, due to the 48 members its people elect to the Lok Sabha, is numerically the second-most numerically important state in the country, after Uttar Pradesh.
The developments and political realignments in this state will influence the course in several states across the country in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Full-throated appreciation and criticism of the EC’s order has resulted in two issues being ignored. One, that the Shiv Sena was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first electoral alliance partner from 1989 onwards, when still a political pariah. Two, the impact this development is likely to have on the BJP’s ambition of being the dominant political force in this state.
While cheering the fact that the faction in its embrace was recognised as the bona fide Shiv Sena, the BJP leaders appear to have disregarded that from 1989 onwards, the Sena’s presence on its poll platform was both a boon and curse. A boon because the Bal Thackeray-led party was the only one then willing to bestow political credibility on the BJP. A curse because the Shiv Sena was seen outside the state as an assortment of lumpen elements. Any association with the Sena, therefore, was often off-putting for parties who may have otherwise started to immediately join the BJP bandwagon. Moreover, from the late 1980s, despite their alliance, the Shiv Sena never concealed its ambition of worsting the BJP when it came to setting the angry-young-Hindu tune.
The Sena, then, was little but a combination of ragtag groups across the state’s urban centres, united by common dislike, even hatred, of all kinds of “outsiders”. They were also drawn by the charisma of the “original” Hindu “Hriday Samrat”, Bal Thackeray.
The Shiv Sena did not just ride piggyback on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Mandir movement, but also went ahead and literally queered the pitch, the cricket pitch in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, to be precise. The playing strip was vandalised to prevent the planned India-Pakistan ODI cricket match in 1991. In the initial years, when the BJP and Shiv Sena partnered one another in elections, the two were frequently locked in a game of political one-upmanship. But while the BJP moderated its stance after 1998, when it formed the NDA coalition government at the Centre, the Sena, despite being part of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, could not prevent its cadre from pursuing its past disruptive ways.
As a consequence, Sena activists continued with the norm of the 1990s to block the India-Pakistan cricket series and they dug up, to the Centre’s huge embarrassment, the cricket ground in New Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla, leading to the abandonment of the Test match. The purpose in recalling these episodes is to underscore that after taking charge of the Shiv Sena, especially following his father’s death in 2012, Uddhav Thackeray changed the course that the Sena was on.
After 2014, he moderated the party’s stance and almost simultaneously severed the alliance with the BJP for the 2014 Assembly polls because he did not wish to play second fiddle. The two partners joined hands to form a post-poll coalition government. But the discord created by the episode created was never really forgotten. It resurfaced after the 2019 Assembly polls when Uddhav Thackeray made clear his intention to be chief minister, and when the BJP did not oblige, he forged a highly improbable coalition, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, with Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the Congress. Given this backdrop, the BJP will now have to assess if the Eknath Shinde-led Sena is going to be a boon or a curse to it and how it would impact its future ambitions in the state.
Over the next few months, the legal battle in the Supreme Court may get decided in either faction’s favour in time. In case of the Supreme Court upholding the EC order, the BJP will be hard pressed to retain its current position as the dominant party in the coalition. A judicial endorsement of its status as the “real” Sena will possibly embolden the Shinde faction into wanting to regain the “senior partner” tag the party had prior to 2014. It may be recalled that disagreement over seat-sharing for the 2014 Assembly elections led to the acrimonious parting between the two partners. They eventually joined hands to form a coalition government with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister, but the fracture never completely healed. The two parties settled on an uneasy alliance for the 2019 Assembly polls, but after the results, the pact broke as Uddhav Thackeray insisted on sharing the tenure of the chief minister.
The episode exposed a well-known secret that his ties with the BJP leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi were far from ideal. It is difficult to foresee them getting together unless the BJP agrees to hand over the state leadership to the former chief minister.
Part of the BJP’s troubles in Maharashtra is the result of its domineering stance towards allies. This has been the reason for the BJP to lose many allies, including the Akali Dal and Nitish Kumar. In states where it has little option but to forge alliances, the BJP always tries to marginalise the ally. This is also the reason for its failure to form a pact in Meghalaya, which is going to the polls on February 27. After receiving a shot in the arm with the EC order, Mr Shinde will sooner or later flex his muscles, much to the dislike of the BJP. The situation may get worse for it if the court finds no fault with the commission’s order. And in the event of the court reversing the EC’s order and declaring Uddhav Thackeray’s Sena as the “genuine” article, the BJP’s worries will only increase. Either way, the party is caught in a bit of a sticky situation.