MAHARASHTRA has never seen such massive defections as in the run-up to the April/May Lok Sabha election and the October 21 State Assembly election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), acutely aware that disgruntled ticket aspirants would defect, kept its candidates list under wraps until the last minute and released it just before the deadline for filing of nominations closed on October 4. The BJP’s alliance partner, the Shiv Sena, although aware of the phenomenon, was not so discreet.
While the opposition Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) lost senior leaders to the BJP, it has been trophy time for the BJP and, to a lesser extent, the Sena.
Although no formal announcement was made by the saffron alliance, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray took his party leaders into confidence by handing out the AB forms, which mention the names of the party’s official candidates, to sitting MLAs. This was a mistake given the uncertainties and dissent that have been plaguing all parties largely because of defections.
In mid-September, Ganesh Naik, a senior and influential NCP leader, joined the BJP. Ganesh Naik holds sway over Navi Mumbai and Thane. It was a coup for the BJP and a blow to the NCP. But all hell broke loose after Uddhav Thackeray circulated the AB forms. Sena workers saw that their alliance partner had been given the Airoli and Belapur seats in Navi Mumbai and more specifically that one seat had been allotted to Ganesh Naik. This rage stems from the fact that Navi Mumbai has been the traditional battleground of Ganesh Naik and the Sena. Ganesh Naik has essentially held sway over the area for 15 years, exploiting the natural resources of the area and strengthening his political position. His son, Sandeep, the NCP’s sitting MLA from Airoli, joined the BJP in August.
Shiv Sainiks could not tolerate the fact that their hated rival had joined their coalition partner and that it had nominated him to a seat that they thought was rightfully theirs. In protest against the move, the Sena’s Thane district vice president, the party’s Navi Mumbai city chief and over 200 Saniks handed in their resignations. (The party has never witnessed such a rebellion before. Sainkis have always accepted the party chief’s decision. Such large-scale resignations would have been dealt with brutally in Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s dictatorial regime.)
On the surface, the Sena and the BJP may seem like well-matched allies, but they are not natural allies. Unlike the BJP, the Sena is a party that is swayed easily, has flexible agendas and is not rooted in guiding principles. Its meeting ground is one of convenience. The Sena’s strong presence, especially under Bal Thackeray, particularly in the economic powerhouse of Mumbai, was undeniably attractive to the BJP. In the 1980s, the BJP was a political non-entity in the State. The Sena was attracted to the BJP because it was a national party and it had national organisational powers that the Sena sorely lacked. The two have grown together, but the relationship has remained rocky.
That the two parties were going to fight the 2019 Assembly election as a team was well established even before the formal announcement of the election date. Although the BJP is the politically stronger partner in Maharashtra now, it still needs the Sena’s support. In fact, it has no option but to partner with the Sena since Maharashtra sends the second highest number of elected representatives (48) to the Lower House of Parliament after Uttar Pradesh. Aligning itself with the Sena gives the BJP the necessary edge in the numerically important State. Further, the BJP realised that it had to continue the alliance with the Sena after the Congress and the NCP announced that they would fight the election together.
When the Sena and the BJP first joined hands in 1989, it was the Sena that had the upper hand in the State. Bal Thackeray was the party supremo and the Sena had a notorious history of street fighting and breaking labour unions. Because of its strong-arm tactics, the Sena used to hold Mumbai to ransom even when it was not in the government. As the Sena’s “sons of the soil” clarion call began to grow weak, it turned towards the new horizons of Hindutva politics. Both the Sena and the BJP saw each other as mutually useful allies. Their partnership came to fruition in 1995 when they together won the Assembly election and formed the government in the State with the Sena’s Manohar Joshi as Chief Minister. The Sena continued to be the senior partner until the next election in 1999, which the alliance lost to the Congress-NCP. In 2014, the Sena-BJP came back to power in the State, this time with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as the Chief Minister.
Between 1999 and 2014, when the Sena and the BJP were in the opposition, the BJP engaged itself successfully in strengthening its rural cadre and organisational network and also in building on the existing network of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. It recruited new members from zilla parishads and from other parties as well. It honed its social media skills and found a responsive chord in the younger generation. It identified sympathetic government officers at all levels. Simultaneously, the BJP’s victory in the Lok Sabha election in 2014 was a huge morale booster for its State cadres.
By the time the date for the 2014 election to the State Assembly was announced, the State BJP was a well-honed fighting machine. It had identified its targets—sugar cooperatives; cooperative banks; youths, especially urban youth; and business owners. It wanted to target NCP leader Sharad Pawar and that meant politically penetrating western Maharashtra, the NCP stronghold. The party also had to up the ante on its blend of nationalism coated in religion and economic promise in order to attract votes. With its newfound confidence, the BJP decided to talk tough with its electoral partner and it stuck to its demand for more seats. The Sena balked at the demand and the 25-year-old alliance broke up. The two parties fought the election separately. The BJP won 122 of the 260 seats it contested. The Sena won 63 of the 282 seats it had set its eyes on. The BJP formed the government in October 2014 and the Sena joined it in December. It was inevitable that the two would form a post-election alliance, but this time the BJP was clearly the big brother. It was also perhaps the first time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hand was obviously seen in the decision making in Maharashtra.
For the October 21 Assembly election it was a given that the two parties would contest together. After a brief rift in January 2018, the two came together in February just before the Lok Sabha election in April/May. The big success of the BJP in the Lok Sabha election gave the Sena the impression that the BJP was a behemoth that it would do well to be associated with in the Assembly election. But this did not stop the rankling within the party that the BJP had overtaken the Sena in what it considered as its State. So, the Sena asserted itself by refusing to yield more seats to its ally during the seat-sharing talks.
In the final count, the BJP will contest 150 seats, the Sena 124 and the smaller allies 14. The Sena tried its luck further and suggested that Uddhav Thackeray’s son Aaditya be named as the chief ministerial candidate. The party seems to be serious about this because Aaditya will contest the election from the safe seat of Worli in Mumbai. He is the first Thackeray to contest an election and to be more than a “remote control”, a term his grandfather Bal Thackeray coined for himself when he was asked why he did not join the government.