Is the Shiv Sena wary of Modi?

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Once a powerful regional entity, the Shiv Sena is using the Presidential race to assert its position within the NDA, says Rana Ayyub

Not friends anymore The Sena does not want to back Narendra Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial choice
Photo: Deepak Salvi

WITH THE Presidential election shifting the focus to allies who would play an important role in the run-up to the grand finale in 2014, regional parties have upped the ante, reasserting their importance.

Forging new ties The Sena has been lending covert support to the Sharad Pawar-led NCP
Photo Courtesy: Apoorva Salkade/Outlook

The Shiv Sena — one of the oldest allies of the BJP — too is making its presence felt. As stories were churned out one after the other on the political manoeuvrings for the race to Raisina Hill, the Sena declared its support for Pranab Mukherjee. As the back story goes, Sena supremo Bal Thackeray reportedly attended two phone calls on 18 June, the first from an industrial house known for its proximity to the Congress, and the other from NCP head Sharad Pawar. Both conversations had the same message: “Support Pranab Mukherjee for President.” The Sena did not deliberate and did what was asked.

Sources say that there is more to the decision to support Pranab than meets the eye. The Sena wants to assert itself within the NDA and consolidate its position in Maharashtra, where its popularity has been increasingly challenged. By supporting Pranab, the party has sent out a strong signal to the BJP that it’s not too happy at Narendra Modi positioning himself as the potential prime ministerial candidate for the NDA.

Ironically, in the past, the Sena saw Modi as an ally in its fight for Hindutva. The Gujarat CM has even shared the platform with Bal Thackeray on many an occasion. However, the close proximity that bête noire Raj Thackeray seems to be enjoying with Modi has made the party uncomfortable. Raj has been making frequent visits to Ahmedabad and hailing Modi as a hero of development and Hindutva and the ideal candidate to lead the country. Nervousness in the Sena was evident when right after Raj’s statement, it published an editorial in Saamna, the party mouthpiece, questioning Modi’s commitment to Hindutva during his much-publicised Sadbhavna fast.

The Sena is worried that if Modi, who has been cosying up to Raj, finds himself in a decision-making position in the Central leadership, it will weaken the party’s position in Maharashtra.

On his part, the 86-year-old Sena patriarch has been keen to pull every possible string to get back the reins of Maharashtra. His party, under the leadership of son Uddhav Thackeray, has been criticised for being a lacklustre Opposition.

Cosying up to the NCP, aligning with the RPI, and opposing Modi could cost the Sena its Hindutva image

On the other hand, the Sena has a symbiotic relationship with Sharad Pawar, a long-time friend of the Thackerays. The NCP leader, instrumental in clipping PA Sangma’s desire to become president, knows the Sena’s insecurities all too well. Although the NCP is a part of the Congress alliance in Maharashtra, every time the state faces elections, Pawar has managed to keep gossip mills running about a possible tie-up with the Sena.

Winning the municipal elections has been a major boost for the Sena. Partymen who stuck with Uddhav when others were shifting allegiance to other regional parties were disappointed with his inability to keep the Marathi asmita alive.

Sena MP and editor of Saamna Sanjay Raut puts it succinctly. “At a time when others were going violent on the streets, Uddhav focussed on farmer suicides, spoke of inclusiveness,” he says, taking a dig at Raj Thackarey’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which assaulted non-Marathis working in Mumbai. “If we have been torchbearers of Hindutva in Maharashtra, then how could we attack the followers of Hindutva?” Raut says increasing numbers in the municipal polls augur well for the party and attributes it to Uddhav. Unlike his father and cousin Raj, says Raut, Uddhav has used conciliation and not aggression to bring Sena back in the reckoning in Maharashtra.

While Uddhav’s efforts may have salvaged the party from sinking into oblivion, political writers and observers believe the Sena has failed to take on the government on most counts.

Recent murmurs in bureaucratic circles of a violation by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan when he sanctioned a hill station in the Malushi Taluka near Pune is an example. The project was given a go-ahead even though the State Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry had advised the government to restrict development in the eco-sensitive region.

Coming after the controversial Lavasa and Amby Valley projects, this presented an ideal opportunity for any Opposition to take the government to the cleaners. But, while Lavasa and Amby Valley are still mired in controversies, the Malushi project slipped by unquestioned. Raut says the party was waiting for the Assembly session to stage its opposition. Political analysts are of the opinion that it is the state of confusion within the Opposition rank and file that has let the ruling alliance off the hook.

It is the party’s line on Modi that lends credence to the confusion theory. The party’s relationship with the BJP had strained considerably after the death of Pramod Mahajan. Bal Thackeray and the RSS have found themselves in contradictory positions on most issues. The Sena has also accused the Sangh of imposing itself in the decision-making process of the party. Perhaps that is what prompted it to come out in the open against what it called the unethical manner of removing Sanjay Joshi from the BJP.

The Sena has also come out in support of Nitish Kumar in his indirect opposition to Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. Sena insiders say the party does not mind a non-BJP prime ministerial candidate and is also open to giving LK Advani a shot at the top berth. “Narendra Modi will not be acceptable to most of the allies,” says a senior Sena MP on condition of anonymity. “The BJP has to understand that the NDA has other parties like the JD(U), BJD, Akali Dal and their opinion too needs to be factored in. The prime ministerial candidate should be discussed with us.”

THE PARTY is apparently willing to sever ties with the BJP and forge a new alliance in the state. BJP chief Nitin Gadkari’s indifference has already been criticised by the Sena, which is lending covert support to the NCP. In fact, the beginning of the political re-alignment was signalled when the Sena joined hands with Dalit leader Ramdas Athavale and his Republican Party of India (RPI) in the BMC elections.

However, for a party still to flex its political muscle under the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray, the Sena has many hurdles to cross. A section of the state leadership gets its support in the Assembly election from the cooperatives, which are largely controlled by the NCP and the Congress. These cooperatives wield power before any election in Maharashtra. In the six years that Uddhav has been at the helm of affairs, the party has not been able to influence the cooperatives. Further, cosying up to the NCP, aligning with a secular face like the RPI and opposing Modi could come at the cost of its Hindutva image. And therein lies the rub: for all its disagreements with the BJP, the Shiv Sena too finds itself in the same dilemma as the BJP.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka. 
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