In Maharashtra, BJP's game power at any cost
Maharashtra has irked the BJP over the last few years and the Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray as the Chief Minister has been a troublesome thorn in its side. Other States have provided sturdy opposition to the near-complete sweep and control of the BJP – West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are examples. But Maharashtra has been a particularly sore point for the BJP because it is here that friends have turned foes. At one point they were quite well-aligned and many viewed the BJP and the Shiv Sena almost like kin–quarrels, no matter how fractious, may happen but ultimately, they would come home to one family and settle the matter under one roof was the general view. Bicker, fight and rage at each other they did, but the partnership held. However, in 2019, all that changed. Uddhav Thackeray and the wider leadership of the Shiv Sena began to see the BJP as less of a partner and more as an enemy, daggers drawn, preparing, gearing, growing and waiting to gobble up all power for itself. This led to the split, with Thackeray claiming the position of Chief Minister by discarding the BJP and signing on the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP as partners.
The Shiv Sena has known the BJP as only friends can, and since then it has set about systematically, and with particularly stinging narratives, attacking the party and seeking to destroy its carefully cultivated if limited reach in Maharashtra.
This didn’t come easy. The BJP attempted to split the alliance and even got a government sworn in with the support of Pawar’s nephew in a 6 a.m. coup with the BJP-appointed Governor leading the oath-taking. But that didn’t last beyond 48 hours and Uddhav Thackery eventually stepped in to become the 19th Chief Minister of Maharashtra, taking the oath on November 28, 2019. Before this he was elected president of the newly formed coalition Maha Vikas Aghadi.
The Shiv Sena has known the BJP as only friends can, and since then it has set about systematically, and with particularly stinging narratives, attacking the party and seeking to destroy its carefully cultivated if limited reach in Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena supported the fight to protect the Aarey green belt in Mumbai, reversing the BJP- era stand. The Shiv Sena has asked difficult questions on the proposed bullet train project connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The Narcotics Control Bureau working under the Central government was exposed for seeking to extort money by filing false cases. The party has accused the Prime Minister of “lies” in speeches to Parliament. One editorial in the Sena mouthpiece ‘Saamna’ said: “When Modi first set foot in Parliament, he kept his head on the steps of Parliament and shed tears. Today, in seven years, the same Parliament and democracy will be shedding tears! So much anarchy has been created. The speechwriters of Modi seem to have taken a contract to turn him into a liar because the references in his speeches are wrong.” The party has also attacked the PM over the migrants’ crisis, and accused the BJP of starting riots on the issue of the ‘hijab’.
Needless to say, the Shiv Sena ought to have known better and exercised better control on its MLAs
In return, the BJP has been out to teach the Shiv Sena and its leader Uddhav Thakeray a lesson. Now, it appears to have caught the Sena in a pincer. The block of Shiv Sena MLAs (at first 26 Shiv Sena MLAs led by Eknath Shinde, Urban Development and Public Works minister) fled to Surat in Gujarat and now to Assam, both BJP-ruled. And that tells a tale of how this “coup” has been engineered.
Needless to say, the Shiv Sena ought to have known better and exercised better control on its MLAs. It will now test the political mettle of Uddhav Thackeray, his team, his Congress-NCP allies and especially the astuteness and skills of Sharad Pawar. No one so far has bettered the wily Maratha leader and three times Chief Minister of Maharashtra.
Events are unfolding fast and it is not easy to predict how this will end. Given its control and power, the BJP may well succeed. The narrative being built is that the Sena went against the mandate of the people by breaking a pre-poll alliance with the BJP and forging a post-poll alliance with the Congress, a party that Uddhav’s father Bal Thackeray opposed. Yet, the BJP equally knows that its game is to weaken the Sena and grow its own party, a gobbling-up strategy that has been at the root of the evaporating trust between the two parties.
If the BJP succeeds this time in toppling the Uddhav Thackeray government, it will get what it wanted in the short term but at the cost of displaying to the nation that the party is willing to go to any lengths to grab power and teach its foes a lesson.
Even when the alliance was forged first by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and BJP General Secretary Pramod Mahajan over three decades ago, there was some mistrust which was papered over by the promise of mutual benefits the two could draw from the relationship which became official when the two parties fought the 1989 Lok Sabha election together. Yet, when those benefits actually arrived (the Sena has not seen power at the State level since 1999), the problems acquired a new dimension. The BJP placed Devendra Fadnavis as its Chief Minister in 2014-2019, and the Sena just could not tolerate handing them a second term. The party had worked out a 50:50 power sharing arrangement with the BJP and wanted to share the new term, starting with itself.
If the BJP succeeds this time in toppling the Uddhav Thackeray government, it will get what it wanted in the short term but at the cost of displaying to the nation that the party is willing to go to any lengths to grab power and teach its foes a lesson. This cannot be good for democracy and cannot be good for the BJP either – the message for any potential partner of the BJP will be to keep away. It also builds the argument of many within the Shiv Sena that the BJP is about control and power, for which Hindutva is being put to use. It was barely a two months ago that amid the threats to recite the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ outside the Chief Minister’s house that the Shiv Sena attacked the Prime Minister again. The Shiv Sena has been vocal in its opposition, providing one of the most potent and aggressive voices against the BJP in the nation today. The BJP is out to silence that voice now.
(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press)