Indian politics. Thackeray’s Smart Move: A Lesson for BJP?

Celebration time: Shiv Sena members celebrating after Devendra Fadanvis declared his resignation as Chief Minister on Tuesday.
Celebration time: Shiv Sena members celebrating after Devendra Fadanvis declared his resignation as Chief Minister on Tuesday.   | Photo Credit: Aadesh Choudhari

by Nilofar Suhrawardy 27 November 2019

The political developments in Maharashtra have raised quite a few eye-brows. And why not? These mark beginning of a new political chapter here with quite a few interesting twists and turns. The most interesting is it being based on Shiv Sena (Sena) chief, Udhav Thackeray’s desire to be state chief minister. His decision signals end of 25-year-old alliance between Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This move may not have been taken had BJP given it to Thackeray’s demand. But BJP remained rigid. Thus, from this angle, Sena’s decision to part company with BJP bears greater significance than apparent. It may be recalled, both parties entertained differences over seat sharing during 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections also. They fought elections separately. However, later, they aligned. They contested recent assembly elections by aligning. But, as developments indicate, this alliance was short-lived.

This clearly is suggestive of a lot more than apparent. Less than a few months ago, during parliamentary polls, in 48 seats from this state, BJP won 23, its then ally Sena- 18, while the rivals’ coalition- United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won only five. A party from Hyderabad, trying to spread its wings here won one seat and an independent candidate-one. The UPA includes the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In 288-member Maharashtra Assembly, 145 is the magical figure for forming the state government. During recent assembly elections, BJP won 105 seats, Sena-56, the Congress-44 and NCP- 54 seats. On its own strength, BJP has less than 50% of seats in the state assembly. Comparatively, the other parties do not have even a third of the assembly seats. At the same time, the political reality of BJP’s rivals having performed much better in assembly elections than they did in parliamentary polls from Maharashtra cannot be ignored. This is a clear pointer to difference in electoral strategy exercised by voters during elections at the two levels: — parliamentary elections and regional elections.

The results may have been different, if Sena had parted company with BJP ahead of parliamentary elections. But if the BJP and Sena had not aligned, they would have intruded into each other’s vote-banks, leading to a division in their gains. This may have contributed to their rivals performing better than they did. It is also possible, BJP may have gained more seats and Sena lesser. Indian voters are fairly shrewd. During parliamentary elections, they give greater importance to national parties and leaders than regional. The latter stand a chance of performing well in parliamentary elections only when their local leaders have a strong hold in their respective domains and/or when they align with a key national party.

Till recently, the extremist, right-wing similarity between the agenda claimed by BJP and Sena contributed to their political alliance. At least, this was the assumption. The manner in which two parties have parted company is a stark indicator of their alliance having rested primarily on their political goals. They certainly made a show of their “religious-card” (anti-Muslim bias), particularly over issues such as Ayodhya-dispute.  Their alliance was apparently manipulated for their respective political gains. BJP chose to align with Sena to increase and strengthen its hold in Maharashtra for Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) polls. The key objective of Sena was probably to enhance its significance in Lok Sabha. At present, with or without support of Sena, BJP has enough Lok Sabha members to stay in power at the centre. Thus, BJP has displayed little concern about losing support of Sena. It is to be watched whether this political distance is maintained between the two during the next parliamentary elections also.

As political developments suggest, Sena’s primary concern is being at the helm in Maharashtra with the chief minister from its camp. BJP’s insistence on chief minister being from its party forced Sena to break its alliance with the former and join its former rivals. Eyebrows have been raised at Congress and NCP being willing to align with Sena and let its chief, Thackeray be the state chief minister. This cannot be viewed as simply a game of numbers. Or that of hype raised earlier by Sena about its extremist perceptions. For the sake of being at helm, Sena needs support of Congress and NCP. Sena can no longer afford to openly display its extremist, right-wing colors. Sena had earlier gambled on its communal ploy (anti-Muslim, extremist stand) to probably attract voters to its camp.

At a point, Sena members also tried playing regional card, displaying aggressive violence against non-Marathas settled in Maharashtra. There are too many non-Marathas in Bollywood world and at other levels, having right to vote from Maharashtra. Prospects of these stars and other persons being moved forcibly or by choice from Maharashtra may be viewed as non-existent. But prospects of their not supporting Sena have been strong. Sena is not oblivious of this political reality. Not surprisingly, over the years, Sena leaders seem to have become fairly wise about these extremist moves being of little help in securing them political gains.

It is possible, failure of saffron brigade’s communal agenda linked with Ayodhya-issue may have further cautioned Sena about limited political gains by pursuing an extremist drive. Sena leaders appear to have closely observed electoral moves exercised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his electoral campaigns. During 2014 campaign, he used the secular mask and tried anti-Pak moves for 2019 elections. Clearly, both these strategies are suggestive of Modi having little confidence in electoral success from saffron-brigade’s communal agenda. The most important factor responsible for Sena turning its back towards BJP is probably latter’s political strategy. Sena leaders are not oblivious of game-plan of BJP trying to align with regional parties. BJP’s apparent agenda is to enhance its own base in different states. In this direction, BJP first extends a friendly hand towards regional parties and then tries testing its own strength at the political expense of the same regional parties.

The recent assembly election results have probably served as a political shock and lesson for Sena. Subsequently, BJP’s refusal to let Sena hold the chief ministerial berth in Maharashtra was thus viewed as a danger signal for the latter. From this angle, an alliance with Congress and NCP is of a lesser risk for Sena than with BJP. Speculations are being voiced over decision of Congress to give in to Sena, known for its extremist leanings. Given that chief concern of Sena was holding the chief ministerial seat, Congress has not played a wrong move. Considering that decision of Congress and NCP has led to a split in alliance of BJP and Sena, their move’s significance cannot be ignored. A BJP government at the state level would certainly not have spelled any political gain for Congress, NCP and/or Sena. Rather, prospects of their base weakening further in Maharashtra would have prevailed. In this context, Sena has played strategically by sticking to its demand for chief ministerial position. By aligning, the three have rung alarm bells for BJP. It cannot always have its way. Now, it is to be watched whether other regional parties, particularly the allies of BJP, act as shrewdly as Sena has or not. Thackeray’s ploy carries stronger political signals than his demand for chief ministerial position. It is strongly suggestive of Sena having no intention to lose its base in Maharashtra. Thackeray has thus acted smartly and so have its new allies. It is a lesson for BJP!

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