The vagaries of coalition politics have been intermittently rocking the Shiv Sena-BJP boat. One had hoped that in the wake of a saffron sweep in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha elections, the troubles in paradise would disappear. But the Sena continues to throw calculated tantrums. Now flush with a pan-India Narendra Modi mandate, the BJP doesn’t appear too keen on tolerance.
The primary, if not the only, factor for the re-emergence and hardening of fault lines, is the October assembly polls. No longer content to playing second fiddle to the BJP — even though it capitalised on the Modi wave — the Sena is vocal about a lion’s share of seats in the state elections. To bolster its claims, and rouse the sentiments of the party’s rank and file, a section of the leadership has pitched Uddhav Thackeray as the next Chief Minister. That’s a radical departure from convention, even by the Sena standards. Since the party was founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966, no member of the family has ever accepted a ministerial berth. It always made sense to remote control the administration from Matoshree, the Thackeray residence. The Sena chief’s silence in the din of the cadres’ chants for a Uddhav sarkar is no less baffling.
The firmness for a bigger chunk in seat-sharing could also be a symptom of the party’s growing insecurity. A 25-year-old alliance notwithstanding, it is scared of ceding more ground to the BJP. The editorial in its mouthpiece Saamna, criticising the Gujaratis, was thought to be a smart move — stirring the Marathi manoos against the prosperous community. That way the Sena felt it would mobilise its supporters — a shop-worn trick, but considered a guaranteed vote-catcher. Only this time it didn’t work. Mindful of the tirade’s debilitating effect on the alliance, Uddhav had been unusually prompt in censuring Sanjay Raut, the editor of the daily and a staunch loyalist.
The party’s fear has also deepened over a lone seat in the Modi Cabinet, that too a lightweight portfolio of heavy industries. Compared to the rewards showered on the BJP’s state unit, the Sena, the second largest constituent of the NDA, has been handed a raw deal. Its diminishing clout was again in focus when its protests over inviting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Modi’s swearing-in were brushed aside.
Though assembly elections have their own dynamics and issues and the outcome may not reflect the nationwide mood — Odisha and Telangana have bucked the current trend — the BJP has far better prospects than the Sena. Its strategy of projecting Gopinath Munde, the five-time MLA and party’s OBC face as the chief ministerial candidate will find resonance among the Dalits and other backward classes. Munde’s dreams of ruling the state are no secret, and this could be his golden opportunity. He had already proved his mettle in the parliamentary contest when he snubbed NCP strongman Sharad Pawar in the latter’s backyard Marathawada by defeating Suresh Dhus.
The Sena has to appreciate the sea-change in the political landscape. It cannot afford to be petulant and insist on playing the Big Brother citing the 2009 pact when it had contested in 171 seats. The BJP had fought in 117 constituencies. Now it’s likely to be the other way round. Any reckless move by the Sena, and the BJP may gravitate towards the MNS. Uddhav knows how precarious his position had been when Nitin Gadkari was trying to bring Raj into the alliance. He cannot afford to be carried away and squander a shot at power.