Easy Goal, Uneasy Alliance

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Subdued bonhomie BJP chief Amit Shah meets Uddhav Thackeray (third from right)
Subdued bonhomie BJP chief Amit Shah
meets Uddhav Thackeray (third from right)

After protracted tough posturing that threatened a virtual breakdown of the arrangement, the saffron alliance in the upcoming Maharashtra polls has apparently resolved its internal contradictions and finally agreed on seat-sharing. Both the BJP and the Shiv Sena have had to publicly climb down from their respective positions, after the Nagpur bosses of the RSS intervened to end the crisis.

In contrast, the incumbent Congress-NCP alliance is yet to completely iron out its differences. Emboldened by the Congress party’s relative weakness, the NCP has demanded 50-50 seat adjustment and also chief ministership by rotation for half the term. The equation between the Congress and the NCP has been badly affected by their public wrangling, with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi refusing to meet NCP supremo Sharad Pawar to resolve the crisis. Neither party has helped its cause by frequently vacillating on its position.

There is a feeling in the Congress that rather than succumbing to the NCP’s hard bargaining, the party should realise that the accumulated burden of anti-incumbency is too daunting and the party will be better off trying to reconcile itself to the inevitable.

There has been a huge shift in the political scenario after the Lok Sabha election in which the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won a massive 42 out of 48 seats. The NCP won four Lok Sabha seats while the Congress was restricted to two — a result that took even the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance by surprise.

In the upcoming Assembly election, the contest has assumed an entirely new complexion, with wagers being put on whether the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition will be able to repeat its performance of the Lok Sabha polls.

Pre-poll surveys suggest that the BJP- Shiv Sena alliance is set to form the next government in the state, thereby bringing to an end the 15-year-long Congress-NCP regime. Despite its internal contradictions, the saffron alliance is exuding optimism about the eventual outcome.

Observers, however, are not so sure, and foresee trouble over the choice of the next chief minister (Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is being actively projected by his supporters) as also the misgivings that have surfaced in the smaller parties supporting the two main allies. It is felt that the fissures that were lately evident run deep enough to cause damage to the eventual chances of the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

It is rather commonplace for political alliances to hit a roadblock when either of the two major allies loses its political standing. But this case presents quite a contrary spectacle. Here, the rift has arisen out of the remarkable victory the coalition managed in the 2014 General Election where the BJP bagged 23 seats and the Shiv Sena won 18.

It raised problems on two levels. One is the rise of the BJP. Since the party contested fewer seats than the Shiv Sena and won more, the BJP leaders feel that the political equation must change and Shiv Sena must stop treating it as a ‘junior partner’ in the coalition. The BJP firmly believes that the alliance’s victory in the state owes everything to the Narendra Modi factor and the party takes credit for all the 42 seats won, including those bagged by a clutch of small parties.

The party is now mulling a reform in the power structure and seat-sharing pattern that has been practised for years. Till now, the Shiv Sena has always contested on more seats than the BJP. In the 2009 Assembly election, the Shiv Sena contested 169 of the 288 seats, leaving the rest (119 seats) for the BJP. The protocol has been in place since the time of Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan. But now, the BJP wants to change this. It wants an equal share in seats — i.e., leaving 18 seats for four minor allies, it wants to contest 135. The Shiv Sena, however, is not willing to reduce its own seat-share below 150.

Hard bargain Deputy CM Ajit Pawar (left) of the NCP wants a better deal in seat-sharing with the Congress under CM Prithviraj Chavan
Hard bargain Deputy CM Ajit Pawar (left) of the NCP wants a better deal in seat-sharing with the Congress under CM Prithviraj Chavan.
Photo: Deepak Salvi

That is not all. The BJP also wants to change the norm that if the alliance wins, the chief minister would be elected from the Shiv Sena. The BJP believes that the party that wins more seats should elect the chief minister.

“Whether it is the Lok Sabha polls or the Assembly election, the BJP has always contested less seats than the Shiv Sena but won more. The recent General Election proves it,” says state BJP leader Raghavendra Tawde. “The alliance will no longer be built upon the old rules.”

With the BJP in no mood to go back on its demand, tension between the two parties is on the rise. The Shiv Sena’s desperation became evident when an editorial published in the party mouthpiece Saamna referred to the BJP’s demand as a result of greed and warned that greed often leads to divorce.

The second problem is that each of them feels that the credit for the coalition’s victory in the Lok Sabha election goes solely to it and they no longer need the other party’s support. Both the parties think that they should contest all the seats. That the feeling runs deep in the BJP rank and file became evident during a state party meeting held in Mumbai recently. Throughout the meeting, the workers kept demanding that the party field candidates in all the constituencies. They claimed that the public mood was unambiguously in support of the BJP and the party must provide leadership in all the Assembly seats. There was a unanimous demand to part ways with the Shiv Sena.

There is a feeling within the BJP leadership that instead of conceding more ground to the Shiv Sena, the party should accommodate smaller parties in the alliance such as the Rashtriya Samaj Party and the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathan by giving them more seats.

Moreover, when Bal Thackeray was alive, he had openly announced his preference for Sushma Swaraj over Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. That had not gone down well with either Modi or Shah.

A similar sentiment pervades the Shiv Sena. In all meetings, the workers demand that the party should go to polls on its own. Meanwhile, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray stunned the BJP by announcing that he was willing to accept the chief minister’s post if that’s the demand of the people. This triggered frantic activity in the BJP, which began displaying posters proclaiming “NaMo Bharat, NaMo Maharashtra”.

Commenting on this battle for supremacy between the two allies, senior Maharashtra-based political analyst Prateek Sathe says, “In Maharashtra today, the BJP and Shiv Sena are, in fact, each other’s biggest rivals. Together, they had defeated the Congress-NCP alliance, but now it seems they will bring each other down.” He warns that if the two don’t settle their disagreements soon enough, the tables may turn against them. “It’s true that the Congress-NCP alliance is in a bad shape in the state, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot make a comeback. In politics, it doesn’t take much to reverse the situation,” he says.

No doubt, the BJP is laying great store on winning Maharashtra. Here too, just like in Haryana and Jharkhand, the party is relying on the Modi factor to quite an extent. “There is a Modi wave across Maharashtra,” says BJP leader Shankar Kadam. “The party will emerge victorious in the Assembly polls just as it conquered the Lok Sabha. The Congress-NCP’s poor governance will not last long.”

The central party leadership, however, is wary of the local leaders banking too much on the Modi factor. During a recent visit to Maharashtra, BJP president Amit Shah advised the state unit not to completely base their poll campaign on Modi’s charisma and instead start working towards it.

Does it mean Shah is sceptical about Modi spelling magic again? “It’s not like that. Everyone knows that in the forthcoming Assembly polls, Modi is a factor,” says analyst Sathe. “But Shah’s advice to party functionaries has a different reason. After the General Election, the party workers and leaders have grown slack. They believe they don’t need to work anymore because the public is crazy about Modi and will not vote for any other party. Shah wants to change this mindset.”

Manohar Gaikwad, a local journalist and political observer, warns against any unquestioning belief that the public sentiment in favour of Modi and the BJP has not changed at all since the Lok Sabha election. “The BJP has to rid itself of this illusion. Local elections are contested by local leaders on the basis of local issues. There may be a craze about Modi among the people, but there is no guarantee that it can influence the outcome of the Assembly polls. Just look at what happened in the recent bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Bihar.”

Meanwhile, the BJP’s troubles in Maharashtra go beyond its battle for supremacy with the Shiv Sena. Party veteran Gopinath Munde was being projected as a frontrunner for the chief minister’s post; this had the stamp of Modi’s approval and Nitin Gadkari has been persuaded to accept it. But Munde died in a car accident recently and with his sudden demise, the party is back to square one with tension mounting between the various factions.

There had been a long-standing rivalry between Gadkari and Munde in which Munde always had an edge over Gadkari. After assuming office, Prime Minister Modi had made it clear that Munde will be handed over the command of Maharashtra politics. Gadkari had no option but to accept it. But with Munde’s death, Gadkari has once again put forth his claim over the state BJP unit.

But it won’t be easy for Gadkari to have his way with BJP state president Devendra Gangadhar Fadnavis having emerged as his new competitor. Making it tougher for Gadkari is the fact that Fadnavis is a loyalist of Modi and Shah. “Munde’s demise has opened up the choice of who would be the next face of the BJP in Maharashtra,” says Sathe. “Though the party does not seem to be focussing on that question right now, it is not an issue that can be brushed aside for too long if the BJP wants to establish itself in the state.”

It is in this context that it has become inevitable for the party to project Modi as the decisive factor in the forthcoming election. Moreover, the state leaders are aware that they have done little to woo the voters in the past five years. Instead, they are banking on the wave of anti-incumbency against the 15-year-old Congress- NCP regime, which is reeling under a spate of serious corruption charges against their leaders and the government, with the people desperately seeking a change. The BJP and the Shiv Sena are drawing their energy from this anger.

Meanwhile, a major rift in the Congress-NCP camp has surfaced as well. After suffering a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha election, the Congress has lost ground and the NCP refuses to accept it as a superior partner in the alliance. The latter wants to change the seat-sharing protocol practised for years, which allowed the Congress to contest more seats than the NCP. “We are not begging the Congress to give us more seats. They have to do it. They must give us an equal share,” says NCP leader Jawahar Patel. “They must be aware of their position in the state after the General Election. If the Congress wants to save Maharashtra from falling into the clutches of the communal forces, it must accept our demands.” But the Congress seems to be in no mood to relent and is even prepared to let go of the alliance in the bargain.

There is internal strife within the Congress as well. A few weeks ago, former chief minister Narayan Rane threatened to quit the party. He had apparently been offered the CM’s post again, but the promise was not fulfilled. The high command somehow managed to mollify him.

The drubbing in the Lok Sabha election has intensified the attacks by a faction within the party that has been highly critical of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. It includes state Congress president Manikrao Thakre. The anti-Chavan camp argues that he is ineligible for the post since he is an “outsider” with little knowledge of Maharashtrian politics or culture. The NCP, too, has repeatedly targeted Chavan.

In the battle for Maharashtra, there is a third contender as well — Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). The MNS did not win a single seat in the Lok Sabha election, but the BJP uses the party to bridle the Shiv Sena. Whenever the latter tries to boss over the BJP, the party shows an inclination for the MNS and voila! Although the BJP revels in the success of both the parties, their rivalry has proved damaging at times — especially when the votes get divided between the two and the Congress-NCP candidate wins. This is why the BJP has made attempts to create a grand alliance with both the MNS and the Shiv Sena, antagonising neither.

While the saffron alliance has reason to be hopeful about the forthcoming Assembly polls in Maharashtra, it remains to be seen whether it can repeat the kind of success it tasted in the 2014 General Election.

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

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