Murtuza Merchant | Feb 7, 2019 | 6 min read
MAHARASHTRA: BJP-SENA ALLIANCE
By Murutuza Merchant
It was a challenge the BJP could well have done without. “Today we want a date for the Ram Temple construction,” boomed Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray from the Laxman Quila in Ayodhya last November. Even as BJP struggles to formulate a strategy to counter the Sangh parivar’s increasingly vociferous demands for a deadline to start temple construction without angering the RSS or other Hindu outfits, the party was probably taken by surprise with its Maharashtra ally jumping into the Ram temple melee in Ayodhya, saying “I have come here to wake up this Kumbhakarn, who has been sleeping for the past four years.”
At that time, there was some talk whether Uddhav would end up being the Vibhishna of the NDA-BJP. But apparently not. The Sena’s support for the Ram temple construction was in itself no surprise given that it has in the past supported Hindutva causes. Nor was its threat to go it alone in the Lok Sabha polls taken seriously by most. Pre-polls and pre-alliance gamesmanship by the Sena are only to be expected. Also, Sena leaders and its MPs at a recent meeting have apparently laid out their terms for an alliance.
Few observers doubt that a Sena-BJP alliance will emerge comfortable winners. State Finance minister and senior BJP leader Sudhir Mungantiwar said his party has always been in favour of an alliance with Uddhav Thackeray and hoped that a pre-poll pact is inked. Meanwhile, BJP president Amit Shah has reportedly asked Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to ensure there is no public spat with the Sena, which never misses an opportunity to pick holes in BJP’s development agenda at the Centre and the state.
Probability is high that an alliance will somehow finally emerge. It is the contours of that alliance that are uncertain. Certainly, the December assembly defeats in three crucial Hindi belt states would have emboldened Sena to believe that BJP needs it more than the other way around.
A recent internal
survey done by BJP has said that an alliance would win 42 of the state’s 48 Lok
Sabha seats. The survey also apparently finds that without an alliance, the BJP
will win around 18-20 seats, with the Sena’s tally coming down to 4-5 seats.
(In 2014, the combine had won 41 seats, with BJP 23 and Sena 18. Congress had
been reduced to two seats, the NCP four.)
The Sena no doubt is aware of the pitfalls of ditching the BJP. But it finds itself in an awkward position after repeatedly finding fault with the BJP over a host of other issues besides the Ram temple. It has railed against demonetisation, implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, the Uniform Civil Code, the killings of soldiers on the borders and the state government’s farm loan waiver, to name a few. One argument is that staying with the BJP would signal a lack of leadership skills of party leader Uddhav Thackeray besides being an admission that the party is incapable of winning elections on its own.
“The party is in a double whammy now,” said a senior Sena leader requesting anonymity. “While we are aware that an alliance with the BJP is the only way of ensuring our win in 2019, doing so will be demoralising for party workers, especially after Uddhavji’s firm stand of fighting elections solo and then his visit to Ayodhya to project himself as the new Hindutva mascot”.
Also, BJP-Sena cannot ignore the potential electoral impact of a rejuvenated and already sealed Congress-NCP alliance. And the probable further splintering of Dalit and Muslim votes by fringe parties like All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), who, though not part of the Congress led opposition, have reached an alliance of their own. The only consolation for the saffron allies, for now, is that Congress-NCP are not ready to welcome the BBM into the “Mahagathbandhan” until it breaks apart from the AIMIM.
Not that this worries the party any. AIMIM legislator Imtiyaz Jaleel admitted that Muslims have traditionally been Congress supporters which feels that Muslim votes will get divided if AIMIM joins the Mahagathbandhan. "The Congress has always wanted Muslim and Dalit votes,” said Imtiyaz Jaleel. Prakash Ambedkar’s (BBM chief) had apparently asked for 12 seats from the Congress. “If Congress agree to even part this demand, we are ready to not contest elections and will only campaign for the BBM," Jaleel added.
“Ghar Wapsi” is another factor that both the BJP and Congress will need to handle tactfully. The “import” of senior leaders who had left one to join the other and any preference meted out to them would fuel resentment among both sets of party workers. Yet efforts are on to woo back senior leaders. After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections of 2014, about 55 leaders, including a former chief minister, mainly from Congress and NCP had joined the BJP and were elected as MPs, MLAs or corporators.
Meanwhile, Uddhav reportedly told a party meeting that following the “personal intervention of Chief Minister Fadnavis,” an alliance with the BJP will happen “If there is a respectable proposal. But how do I convince Shiv Sainiks? They will be convinced only we are given a better deal than offered last time,” Thackeray was quoted as saying.
Thackeray, according to a senior Sena MP, further said he is “deeply hurt” with the BJP’s “high-handedness” and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should behave like he did before the BJP came to power in 2014. “Uddhavji wants Modiji to not show the attitude of the PM’s chair. Today he has it, tomorrow, he may not. However, relations need to be saved,” the MP added.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, without waiting for the Sena’s decision on an alliance, has started holding reviews of each Lok Sabha constituency. Starting with Mumbai city and suburban region seats, Fadnavis has given half-hour slot to MPs from the rest of the Maharashtra. This exercise was begun because BJP insiders feel the Sena is as yet poorly prepared for the upcoming polls, after having lost over a month in organising rallies in Varanasi and Pandharpur for the party chief and later in celebrating the success of these rallies. While the BJP has been organising meetings with booth level party workers and urging them to also focus on constituencies currently held by the Shiv Sena.
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