There is a story which BJP leader, the late Pramod Mahajan would happily relate about his alliance talks with Shiv Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray. In 1990, when the two sides agreed to cement a state-wide alliance in the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha Elections for the first time, Thackeray just scribbled a number on a piece of paper and passed it onto Mahajan. “We fight 200 seats, you fight the rest,” Thackeray bluntly told the BJP leader. The deal was done in less than half an hour: the Sena would eventually fight 183 seats and the BJP 105 in the 288 member assembly.
Fast forward now to 2019 when the tables have turned dramatically. This time, it was the BJP which offered a virtual fait accompli to the Sena, while giving it little option but to accept a role as a ‘junior’ partner in the ‘saffron’ alliance: the BJP contested 150, the Sena 124 and 14 members from smaller parties were given tickets on a BJP symbol. This shift reflects how the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the centre and Devendra Fadnavis at the state level, have completely reworked the power axis in states like Maharashtra. For the Sena in particular, this transfer of power has not been easy to handle: that a party which emerged from the womb of Maharashtrian nativism is now held hostage to the national-level dominance of two Gujaratis is a bitter pill to swallow given past antagonisms during the Samyukta Maharashtra statehood movement. In effect, the ‘Marathi manoos’ is being shown a subordinate place on his home turf.
Which might partly explain the Shiv Sena’s determination to push the BJP to the brink in government formation by insisting on a ‘rotational’ chief ministership. In 2014, when the two sides fought separately, the Sena had little choice but to accept whatever terms and conditions the BJP imposed in a post-poll deal. The party did not get a single major portfolio in Maharashtra, was given just one relatively inconsequential cabinet berth in Delhi, an ailing Uddhav Thackeray was dismissed as a ‘soft’ leader and Fadnavis was pitched as Maharashtra’s unquestioned neta number one. The turning point was the 2017 Mumbai municipal elections when the BJP challenged the Sena in its original fortress and almost breached it successfully: while the Sena won 84 seats, the BJP tally jumped exponentially from 31 to 82 seats. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet that the BJP was now the dominant force of Hindutva politics, able to muster a wider support base than the Sena could have ever imagined. While the Sena’s image as a regional party was seen to be a constraint in attracting Mumbai’s large north Indian migrant population in particular, the BJP was able to assert itself as a mascot of Hindu nationalism.
After the 2017 municipal elections, the Sena has struggled to keep up with the spanking pace set by the BJP which has been winning local election after election in Maharashtra. As a primarily urban party of the Mumbai-Konkan region, the Sena’s expansion into the rural hinterland has been stymied. While it has attempted to raise issues like agrarian distress, the BJP has not afforded it the space to grow as a parallel force in the state. Which might also explain the desperate noises made by the Sena on the Ram Mandir issue and its use of the party mouthpiece Saamna to repeatedly target the Modi and Fadnavis government. Like a caged tiger, the Sena has attempted to break free from the strict conditions that the BJP’s near-hegemonical status has imposed on its political identity as an agitational force: the party which prided itself in the Bal Thackeray era of one roar being enough to bring Mumbai to a halt has been confronted with the prospect of being reduced to a paper tiger, hence its increasingly aggressive posturing.
Which is also why this 2019 election was a make or break one for the Sena. Which is why Aaditya Thackeray at the age of 29 was pushed into the election arena signaling an end to the ‘remote control’ politics of the Thackeray family who had consistently opted out of contesting elections themselves. The final results have only confirmed the widening gap between the BJP and the Sena: the BJP won 105 of the 164 seats contested on its symbol, a strike rate of over 70 per cent while the Sena won 56 of the 124 seats it contested, a strike rate well below 50 per cent. But unlike in T-20 cricket, strike rates don’t matter in electoral politics; the fact is, the BJP is 39 seats short of the majority number in Maharashtra, giving the Sena enough leeway to play a decisive role in government formation. In 2014, the fear of being kept out of the government forced the Sena to accept the BJP’s diktat; in 2019, the BJP’s dependence on Sena support is enough to drive a hard bargain.
That’s not the only twist in the tale. In 2014, the Sharad Pawar-led NCP was willing to explore options of co-habiting with the BJP; in 2019, after being served an Enforcement Directorate notice, and finding his party being poached upon and divided, Pawar seems determined to give the BJP sleepless nights by fishing in troubled waters. As for the Congress, they seem to be in a bit of a bind: keen to prevent another BJP-led government in a resource-rich state but unwilling to openly align with the ‘communal’ Sena (Mrs Gandhi may need to be reminded that Bal Thackeray supported the Emergency in 1975 and didn’t put up candidates against the Congress in the 1977 and 1980 elections).
In this game of political brinkmanship, there is a larger question which will confront the Modi-Shah-led BJP sooner or later: just how far can it push restive allies to the wall in the belief that its supremacy is unchallenged. The Sena may eventually fall in line after getting a few key ministries but does the Maharashtra maha-bharat mark the beginning of the end of the NDA experiment of coalition building? It is the Sena today, will it be Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal United in Bihar tomorrow? Watch this space.
Post-script: Every election throws up kings and king-makers. Maharashtra 2019 has been peculiar in that the ‘star’ of the show at the moment is not any of the obvious names. If you need any proof that journalists can at times make successful politicians, look no further than the Sena MP and Saamna editor Sanjay Raut. The man who entered politics after doing a lengthy interview with Bal Thackeray is now the voice of the Sena in Maharashtra!