It is not without irony that barely days after the long-pending Ayodhya verdict was delivered by the Supreme Court that the Shiv Sena broke its alliance with the BJP. The Sena-BJP tie-up, after all, is the original Hindutva alliance, forged in the high noon of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s. It was hugely mutually beneficial: the BJP emerged from the debris of the 1984 election rout to ride on a rath yatra to power in Delhi while the Shiv Sena positioned itself in the aftermath of the post-Ayodhya riots in Mumbai in 1992-93 as the ‘protectors’ of Hindus.
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.
So here is the paradox of our times. Read the business pages, and there is a fair chance that you will get the impression of a Narendra Modi government on the ropes and an economy in serious trouble. Then, read the political pages and find that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut is marching from one electoral success to another.
Long before Sudheendra Kulkarni, there were the likes of Nikhil Wagle and your humble columnist. In 1991, the Shiv Sena dug up the Wankhede cricket pitch to protest against an India-Pakistan series. I wrote an article condemning the act in the strongest possible terms. A black flag demonstration was staged outside The Times of India office, where I worked in Mumbai, I was verbally abused, but fortunately allowed to leave the premises unhurt.
Political judgements based on opinion polls are hazardous at the best of times, but when there is a five-cornered fight like in Maharashtra, pollsters are often whistling in the dark. There were almost 50 constituencies in Maharashtra in 2009 where the margin was less than 5,000 votes, making any conclusive poll prediction a nightmare. And yet, let me stick my neck out on my home state: The BJP will be almost certainly the single-largest party and, in fact, should get a clear majority.
‘Don’t insult me by calling me a politician. I am a political cartoonist!’ warned the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, lighting up a pipe, glass of white wine in hand, as our TV camera zoomed in on him with the Mumbai skyline in the background of the top floor of the Oberoi hotel. It was quintessential Thackeray, for whom image always mattered as much as reality in the creation of a larger-than-life-figure who was both feared and feted.