Waiting in the wings: Sena’s new Maha power balance

Vishwas Waghmode, Shubhangi Khapre, ZEESHAN SHAIKH
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray with son and MLA Aaditya at the music launch of the film Thackeray in Mumbai. (Express photo by Pradip Das)

On October 29, at the annual pre-Diwali bash at his sprawling official residence Varsha in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis exuded confidence in the BJP-Shiv Sena combine returning to power. The BJP had not done as well as it had hoped to, increasing its dependence on the Sena. Still, Fadnavis appeared confident that he would be the Chief Minister again, for the full five years. There were questions, but he brushed them aside, saying the BJP had made no commitment on sharing the top post with the Sena.

Sixteen kilometres away, at the two-storey Thackeray headquarters of Matoshree, the statement triggered alarm bells. Going by the Sena’s side of the story, it was at this very bungalow, on February 18, that BJP president Amit Shah had acceded to the demand of sharing the CM’s post with the Sena, in the push for a saffron alliance ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

The seam held fast for two elections — Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha — over eight months. Till came that blunt denial by Fadnavis, dealing a blow to the delicately poised Mahayuti (Grand Alliance).

“I am saddened that, for the first time ever, someone has accused me, a Thackeray, of being a liar,” Sena ‘Pramukh’ Uddhav, a normally circumspect man, shot back in an emotional outburst. Soon, the Sena had opened channels with traditional political opponents Congress and Nationalist Congress Party.

The happiest perhaps were Shiv Sena cadres. While the BJP and Sena had fought polls as allies, on the ground the tussle had been bitter, with rejected aspirants from both sides contesting as Independents and cadres refusing to canvass for each other. The BJP had also done little to dash persistent rumours that it was pushing for full majority on its own — buoyed by the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, giving it 23 seats out of 48.

In the 30-year history of the two parties, the BJP had already stolen a march in the contest for space of the senior partner, getting this time 164 seats of the 288 as its share, to the Sena’s 124. The “50:50” power-sharing deal had hence been the sweetener.

EXPLAINED

An alliance for survival

The alliance between the NCP-Congress and Shiv Sena is a strategic grouping leading to the formation of a new political culture in Maharashtra with Sharad Pawar’s NCP at the helm. The 78-year-old Pawar has been the driving force behind this new political alliance. However, with an ambitious Ajit Pawar waiting in the wings, it needs to be seen for how long the party is willing to play second fiddle to the Sena over claims on the CM’s chair.

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At first, Uddhav’s statement that the Sena was now keeping all its options open was thought to be posturing by the party, for better ministerial portfolios. With 105 MLAs, the BJP fell short of the half-way mark by 40. “We believed that the Sena insistence on the CM’s post was just a tactic to have greater say in government functioning,” a senior BJP leader says.

However, within the Sena, Fadnavis’s unilateral declaration hit an already throbbing nerve. The party that was born of a nativist agenda had initially yoked itself to the BJP’s Hindutva politics to spread its influence beyond then Bombay. Over the years though, it is the BJP that gained more, successfully mixing religion with nationalism after the initial support from the Sena.

NCP president Sharad Pawar outside Vidhan Bhavan after paying tribute to former CM Vasantdada Patil on his birth anniversary; Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray after the meeting with Congress leaders; and Congress leader Balasaheb Thorat outside a hotel in Mumbai after meeting Shiv Sena leaders. (Express Photos by Nirmal Harindran & Amit Chakravarty)

This realisation within the Sena has coincided recently with the emergence of 29-year-old Aaditya as the party’s face. The poetry-writing young Sainik has sought to project himself as a woke leader, championing socially progressive issues. His pet projects, such as improving the night life of Mumbai and promoting fitness, would have once been seen as alien to the Sena’s ethos. The 2018 plastic ban in the state was his brainchild, as well as the Sena decision to end its virulent opposition to Valentine’s Day. Aaditya also took the lead in the recent protests over tree-felling for the Metro project in Aarey area of Mumbai, ignoring the BJP’s complaints.

Within the party, the 29-year-old has faced little resistance. This is despite being seen as only a pale imitation of his grandfather, with a social circle that comprises mostly non-Marathi speakers. In January 2014, one of the Sena’s most senior leaders and a former MP, Chandrkant Khaire, was clicked in public touching Aaditya’s feet.

In the 2012 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls, Aaditya was the Sena’s star campaigner. In 2014, he sat in as father Uddhav held coalition talks with the BJP for the Lok Sabha polls, ignoring sarcastic voices about him not being old enough to even contest for Parliament yet. In the 2019 Assembly elections, Aaditya went one step further and took the electoral plunge. Aaditya thus became the first Thackeray to contest any election, sealing the fact that this was a new Sena.

The grooming of the young Thackeray fits in with the strong self-preservation streak of the family. The Thackerays have had bitter experience with conceding power to others within the Sena, including Manohar Joshi who became the party’s first CM, only to be unceremoniously replaced with Narayan Rane. The ambitious Rane, in turn, broke away from the Sena following differences with Uddhav. Given the BJP’s record of subsuming regional parties, Uddhav perhaps felt this was his best shot at securing his son’s future.

The BJP first realised matters were slipping out of its hands when Uddhav stopped speaking with Fadnavis. Through the five previous rollercoaster years, the two had developed a close relationship, and their “personal equation” was seen as the silver bullet for any problems in the alliance.

“I phoned him a number of times but he refused to take my calls,” Fadnavis said. The Sena chief also declined to meet Hindutva leader Sambhaji Bhide when he went to Matoshree as an emissary. “I do not talk to liars,” Uddhav said, shutting the door on further communication till the BJP conceded its demand of sharing the CM’s post.

Says senior BJP leader Sudhir Mungantiwar, “The Sena’s stand is inexplicable. We have been alliance partners for three decades. Even if they had some issues, it could have been sorted across the table.”

With the state under President’s Rule, anything is still possible. But, for now, the break with the BJP appears complete. The Congress, NCP and Sena have made progress on a common minimum programme towards forming a government.

Changing tallies of BJP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra over the years.

And if the Congress appears to have got over the hump of a pas de deux with the “communal” Sena, the burden of ideology does not hang heavy on the latter. In 1971, the Sena had allied with K Kamaraj’s Congress (O) for the Lok Sabha polls; in 1978 and 1980 it had tied up with the Congress (I), first for the Assembly polls and then the Lok Sabha.

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However, ideology may only be one problem for the Sena in this gamble. In hitching its fortunes to the NCP, many fear the Thackerays could end up playing straight into the hands of wily old warhorse Sharad Pawar.

It was Pawar’s decision to break away from the Progressive Democratic Front in 1987 and merge his Congress (S) with the Indian National Congress that had paved the way for the Sena’s expansion as a regional force in Maharashtra. Now, it is 78-year-old Pawar’s relentless shepherding of the NCP campaign that is believed to have stopped the BJP and Sena short of power in the state.

Thackeray seems to have been pushed into the NCP corner by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who enjoys a good rapport with Pawar. “When in Delhi, Raut spends the bulk of his time in the NCP supremo’s company. It is no surprise that he has been the most vocal proponent of this Sena-NCP alliance,” a senior BJP leader says.

Read | If Shiv Sena expects sympathy, they don’t know public: Amit Shah

Soon after the Assembly election results, Pawar is said to have spoken to Uddhav and told him that continuing the alliance with the BJP could be harmful for it in the long run, tapping into the Sena leader’s sentiments.

Shiv Sainiks point out that the changes within the Sena have left it more open to new friends. “Uddhavji has always taken an inclusive approach when it comes to expanding the party,” a former Sena state minister says. “We were deemed to be anti-Dalit but he was instrumental in forging Dalit-Shiv Sena unity. We were deemed to be regional in outlook but Uddhavsaheb came up with ‘Mi Mumbaikar’ idea, in which all those who reside in Mumbai irrespective of their backgrounds are deemed locals.”

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray with Aaditya Thackeray. (ANI file Photo)

The Congress has changed too, donning a shade of saffron which both it and the Sena could live with. “Though the BJP and Sena are ideologically Hindutva parties, the BJP’s Hindutva is cultural while the Sena’s is political. A section of the Congress is also practising soft Hindutva these days, be it Rahul Gandhi’s frequent temple visits or the party welcoming the Ayodhya verdict. With a common minimum programme, an alliance with the NCP and Congress may work and the Sena may not lose much,” says Deepak Pawar, assistant professor, Mumbai University’s Department of Civics and Politics.

Both the Congress and NCP point to the fact that they will hold the Sena to a common minimum programme. Pawar has said, “We are not against any religion, but we certainly insist on secularism.” Says Congress leader Sushil Kumar Shinde, “The party had ideological differences with the Sena in the past. There is smoothness in the relationship now.”

As for any reconciliation with the BJP, the Sena will need intervention at a level higher than Fadnavis’s. For, it is not just the Sena that has changed over the years, it is also the BJP.

When the Sena first sprang onto the scene in Congress-held Maharashtra in 1966, quite like the snarling tiger of its emblem, it was not a Hindutva party. It was a ‘son of the soil’ project that sought to ensure reservations for the Marathi manoos. Its language chauvinism was a part of this, and the first target of its muscleman politics were Tamil and other South Indian migrants settled in then Bombay.

It jumped onto the Hindutva bandwagon in 1989, amidst the BJP’s rise on the strength of its temple movement. It was a mutually beneficial agreement, as the BJP sought to expand its footprint, and the Sena to grow beyond Mumbai and to get a seat on the national stage. The maths was straightforward: the Sena would fight more seats than the BJP in the Assembly elections, while it would be the reverse for the Lok Sabha.

Then, in the 2009 Assembly elections, the BJP with 46 seats won two more than the Sena and wrested the leader of the opposition post. Other signs of the shift in balance of power followed. Bal Thackeray’s towering presence as well as the more conciliatory BJP leadership in the form of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani had all along allowed the Sena to get away with its demands, with central BJP leaders often dropping in at Matoshree in a time-tested propitiatory gesture. Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012 followed by the passing of BJP reins to Narendra Modi disrupted that equation, even as Uddhav struggled to find his feet amid cousin Raj Thackeray’s rebellion.

“We were used to being treated as equals during the Vajpayee-Advani era. Under the Modi-Amit Shah duo, our leadership was treated like just any other regional party,” a Sena leader who was a senior minister in the outgoing government says.

On September 29, 2014, with weeks to go for the Assembly elections, senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse rang up Uddhav to drop a bombshell: the BJP had decided to contest by itself. That slap in the face still rankles. Says a Sena leader, “The BJP always muscles out its allies when they show any sign of weakness. When Uddhav took over, the BJP felt he was no Bal Thackeray and they could call the shots.”

But the BJP won just 122 seats, and needing 22 more, turned to the Sena again. With 63 MLAs, the Sena was the second-largest party. In a month, the alliance was on again.

Sources say the push came from the Sena’s old guard, who were desperate to taste power having been in the wildnerness since 1999, when the Sena-BJP had lost out to the Congress-NCP.

However, the cracks that had set in never did disappear. Sena ministers say Fadnavis’s handpicked bureaucrats ran circles around its men in the Cabinet, with the CM appointing OSDs to keep a watch over portfolios handled by them. “Our experience was similar to a bird being freed from a cage only to find its wings clipped,” says the former Sena minister.

Senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde, who belonged to Maharashtra, once acted as the go-between. But his death in June 2014, soon after Modi took over as Prime Minister the first time, snapped another channel of communication. Others also see in the chasm that traditional Marathi-Gujarati rivalry, with the hold of Gujarat-origin Modi and Shah on the BJP total.

The BJP, on top of it, kept needling Sena, including fighting against it in elections to municipal corporations. Finally, it set its eyes on the cash-rich BMC, an old Sena citadel. In the 2017 elections that the two fought separately, the BJP won 82 seats in Mumbai, just two less than the Sena’s 84.

During the run-up to the BMC elections, another Rubicon in the ties between the parties was crossed when BJP leaders like MP Kirit Somaiya were allowed to personally attack Uddhav and raise questions about his finances.

Shah’s visit to Matoshree ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was, therefore, a significant gesture. Modi, incidentally, has not called here since he became PM.

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So, was there a 50:50 deal agreement between the BJP and Sena at that Matoshree meeting, as Uddhav claims, or none, as Shah and Fadnavis insist?

Fadnavis had announced at the time that there would be “equal power-sharing”. “When we return to power, we will maintain equality in post and responsibilities,” he said.

While he did not mention anything about the CM’s post, in a publicised interaction with the Shiv Sainiks a day after the alliance was sealed, Uddhav said there would be a Sena CM for two-and-a-half years if the alliance came to power. In July, Aaditya told The Indian Express, “Of course, the Sena will have a chief minister. And this has been decided between BJP president Amit Shahji and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackerayji. There were four people in the room, including me.”

Fadnavis had announced at the time that there would be “equal power-sharing”. (File)

This apparent loss-in-translation was glaring, but both sides preferred to let it pass than bring the matter to a head before the polls.

With the Sena not budging after the results, Shah last week said in an interview to ANI, “Why did the Sena not contradict us when we proclaimed Fadnavis as chief minister?” The Sena pointed out, “We have been saying too that there will be a Sena chief minister, and the BJP did not object.”

At a press conference on November 8, Uddhav went on to recount, step by step, how the February 2019 alliance was sealed, and how he had told Shah to convey all the details of the agreement to Fadnavis. He claimed he didn’t publicly mention the agreement to share the CM post on Fadnavis’s own request. “That’s why that sentence in the agreement — ‘equal sharing of power and responsibilities’,” he argued.

Raut suggested later that the reason the BJP is now denying the agreement is that Shah may have kept Modi in the dark on it. The BJP has said this shows Raut has no idea how it functions. “Sanjay Raut will need several lifetimes to understand this,” Maharashtra BJP leader and MLA Ashish Shelar said.

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One of the biggest challenges for the Sena now will be to ensure that the NCP (54 seats, just a whisker short of the Sena) and Congress (44 MLAs) do not pull the rug out from under its feet.

But the Sena is determined to make it work. “The BJP did all it could to harm our prospects. How long could we stick to an ally who wants to finish us off? For our survival we must expand our base and go beyond the issues of Marathi and Hindutva,” a party leader says.

Adds another, “You can’t prosper under someone else’s shadow. The 2019 Assembly results are there for everyone to see. We need to come out of this shadow to grow our base.”

There is that other shadow though — in case of a waiting game, the Sena and other parties will be apprehensive of the BJP’s power to lure their leaders over.