Ball in NCP court?

The Shiv Sena has announced that it will contest the 2019 general elections as well as the Maharashtra Assembly elections due in late 2019 on its own, without allying with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

This is not the first time there’s been a rupture in ties between two like-minded parties. Here is a potted history of the Sena’s growth and development. It has not always been a votary of Hindus. It started out as a Maharashtra for Maharashtrians grouping, then just a twinkle in the eye of its founder, Bal Thackeray, poking fun at ‘migrants’ from other states through cartoons in his magazine, Marmik. That was the beginning of the Shiv Sena as a political grouping, launched in 1966. 

Thackeray soon understood how limiting the Maharashtrian only plank was to the growth of the Shiv Sena. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Sena forged an alliance in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections when the young Pramod Mahajan and the Sena leadership spotted a political opportunity. Although the alliance candidate fail to win a single seat, it garnered sizeable votes in Mumbai. The 1985 Mumbai municipal corporation elections were won by the Sena with a thumping majority — a majority which it was not able to achieve even at the height of its anti-South Indian agitation. Chhagan Bhujbal became the Mayor of Mumbai. In 1985, Sena and BJP parted ways and contested assembly elections independently. In 1995, the two came together and contested as an alliance. At 73 seats, this was the highest tally the Sena has reported ever – though in alliance with the BJP.

Cut to now. Bal Thackeray must be smiling in satisfaction. The Sena and the BJP contested assembly elections in 2014 independent of each other, Sena under the supervision of Uddhav Thackeray. At a tally of 63 seats, this is the highest Sena has ever got on its own. In every Lok Sabha constituency, Sena has dedicated voter pool of between 250,000 and 300,000. Obviously this will hurt the BJP in 2019 though it won’t really help Sena.

There are questions about credibility and timing. Sena has given notice to the BJP. But its ministers remain in place. Voters, especially BJP-minded ones, are bound to ask why. If Sena had stayed out of the government in Maharashtra, as the biggest opposition party, it could have been in place to claim the chief ministership in 2019. Four years later, politically, it has as much responsibility for the suicide of farmers in Maharashtra for instance, as the BJP. 

And then, there’s realpolitik. Collaboration with the BJP has inevitably created two camps in Sena: one which counsels not rocking the boat, staying in alliance with BJP (strategy) while criticising it (tactics). This group has done well for itself from the alliance, using the BJP to curb rivals from emerging within the Shiv Sena (in certain cases). There are unspoken IOUs between leaders of the Shiv Sena and the BJP and the ever present sword of enquiries into corruption cases.

But there is another group which supports the lonely furrow option. These are Sena aspirants in areas where it has been forced to yield to BJP in ticket distribution, men (and women) who can spot an opportunity in the BJP-Sena divorce. Of the two, the group that is more persuasive will influence the future growth of the Shiv Sena.

What does all this mean for the politics of Maharashtra? With the agility he is known for, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar is helming an opposition unity move; and has dropped broad hints that the NCP will stay in the anti-BJP alliance. This comes after two brief flirtations between the NCP and the BJP:  the Gujarat elections where the NCP’s presence as spoiler-in-chief robbed the Congress of a stab at the chief ministership – in six seats, Congress lost by a margin of less than 1,000 votes because of the NCP; and the NCP voted for the BJP in the Rajya Sabha elections earlier, and Ahmed Patel was able to retain his seat by a whisker. Kandhal Jadeja, NCP MLA said the central party had asked him to vote BJP. So Sena’s early warning system is a beacon for the NCP in Maharashtra’s choppy political waters.

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