AFTER months of threatening to withdraw from the alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiv Sena finally did what everyone expected it to do. It confirmed that the 25-year-old saffron alliance was as strong as ever and that the two parties would fight the Lok Sabha elections together in Maharashtra.
At a press conference on February 18, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced: “The Shiv Sena and the BJP have been partners for 25 years. We’ve had our differences but we are both committed to Hindutva, and that is what is holding us together. Right now, nationalism is being challenged by some parties, and so we feel it essential to stay together to defend this. We will contest the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha [Legislative Assembly] elections together.” The two parties also reached an electoral understanding to share the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the State. The BJP will contest 25 seats and the Shiv Sena 23. Allotments for the Assembly elections will be announced later.
If the alliance has lasted 25 years, why was there a debate about its continuance? A step back into history is required to understand the chain of events.
While it is clear that the Shiv Sena benefits more from the alliance at this stage, there is no doubt that both parties feed off each other. When Pramod Mahajan, the prominent BJP leader from the State who was killed in 2006, engineered the alliance between the two saffron parties, he did so with an understanding of the innate strengths of the two. The strategist in Mahajan understood that the Shiv Sena would rake in the votes in the Assembly election and the BJP would do well in the Lok Sabha election. This way the two parties could gain control of Maharashtra.
The alliance came to power in the State for the first time in 1989. The Shiv Sena gained a national presence by its association with the BJP, and the BJP got a toehold in the State by joining with the Shiv Sena. Over time, the balance changed. In the beginning, it was the BJP that benefited more from the relationship as the Shiv Sena lacked the astuteness to take advantage of its strength. In the 1984 Lok Sabha election, the BJP contested alone and did not win any seat. In 1989, it won 10 seats in the Lok Sabha. In 2014, the two parties together won 41 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats, with the Shiv Sena winning 18.
Even at the time of forging the alliance, Mahajan and the BJP had no unrealistic expectations from the Shiv Sena. At that time, this correspondent had interacted with Mahajan, and while discussing the new partnership, he indicated his inherent contempt for Bal Thackeray and his party, saying: “He is a small man.”
That contempt continues. The BJP sees itself as a pan-India party with an agenda and considers the Shiv Sena a ragtag bunch of locals. Worse still, the BJP makes no pretence of hiding its sense of superiority and this has been making the Shiv Sena uncomfortable. But the BJP recognises that it needs the Shiv Sena, a fact not lost on the latter, who decided to play hard to rub in the point.
The Shiv Sena has gained tremendously from the partnership. In their first Lok Sabha election together, the Shiv Sena won four seats. Buoyed by this, the party demanded more and more seats from the initial six to 20. Resentment had been brewing in both parties over the years. BJP workers felt that the Shiv Sena was riding piggyback on it and adding no value. Shiv Sena functionaries, wary of the BJP’s growing strength at the national level, tried to consolidate the party’s position by demanding more seats. Ironically, an increase in the number of seats has not elevated the status of the Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena did not undertake the necessary back-room and grass-roots work required to make the party robust and cement its position. Instead, it got mired in numbers, forgetting the issues that mattered. Never a party that operated by consent or advice from stalwarts, the Shiv Sena deteriorated on these counts when Uddhav Thackeray assumed the reins of the party. Its overall diminishing profile has led to disquiet within the party.
Sadly, it is the Shiv Sena’s own failures that have made it remain the proverbial poor cousin. While the BJP has created party structures at all levels, the Shiv Sena has remained sluggish. Perhaps, its greatest drawback is that it continues to be a one-man party. Following the same dynastic tradition that it lambasts in other parties, Uddhav took over after Bal Thackeray’s death. He was described as softer, gentler and more of a thinker. Uddhav strove to consolidate his position, but he is not a natural politician. For example, he has made the construction of a temple in Ayodhya a major electoral plank when he and his party derive no real benefit from this apart from being seen as hanging on to the coat-tails of the BJP. Issues such as agriculture would have resonated far more with the Shiv Sena’s rural and urban voters and created the impression that the party had a mind of its own and an understanding of the State it claims to cherish.
The Shiv Sena seems to have lost its way. The Marathi manoos—the backbone and supposed raison d’etre of the Shiv Sena—are no longer its clarion call. Traditional enemies—Gujaratis, Madrasis, “bhaiyyas”— have all been enveloped in the warm embrace of Hindutva. To the hardcore Shiv Sena voter, all this is betrayal. The average Maharashtrian is not seduced by Hindutva. Those drawn to it will go to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the BJP anyway. The Sena was meant for the others—the man in the street, the mill worker, the vada pav seller and a considerable section of the middle class with whom the Marathi manoos call resonated. Until the early 1980s, the Shiv Sena, which understood their basic predicament of jobs and earnings, worked for them. The 1982 mills strike in Mumbai changed everything. Maharashtrian workers left the city and the vacuum was filled by labour from other cities. The now-defunct mills were sold, opening up vast tracts of land within the city. The age of real estate began and spawned the need for more labour, almost all of which came from other States. The Shiv Sena found new fodder. The party had contributed to the turmoil in the city because it had been used by mill owners to quell the unions. Now, all of a sudden it was facing its own ghosts. Political aspirations took over and Bal Thackeray was savvy enough to identify with the Ayodhya movement even claiming that Shiv Sainiks were instrumental in bringing down the Babri Masjid. The party continues on this trajectory, and while it has helped it gain power, it has also meant that it has left its core voters confused.
So is the Shiv Sena important to the BJP? Yes, although it is not as important as the BJP is for the Shiv Sena. Opposition political parties are mobilising to oust the BJP from the Centre. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have joined hands in Uttar Pradesh, posing a real threat to the BJP. After Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra has the next highest number of Lok Sabha seats, and at this crucial juncture the BJP is in no position to ignore the numbers game, which has forced it to ally itself with the Shiv Sena.
A political watcher explained: “Everyone is important at election time. Numbers matter. The BJP is clever enough to know that for many people the Shiv Sena still means Bal Thackeray. They are cashing in on that. Uddhav is also aware of this though there is little he can do about the perception. So, the shouting and pouting that you identified is his way of saying, ‘Even if you don’t consider me of the same stature as my father, I am still the leader and I can decide to pull out.’ He was demanding respect. And the BJP saw this for what it was and gave him the respect he craved by sending Amit Shah to meet him. There is no triumph or anything here. It is just convenience for everyone.”