Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray gave an interview to his party’s mouthpiece, Saamana, in the usual fire-and-brimstone style which his father and founder of the party, Bal Thackeray, had perfected. Much like the manner in which he spoke at public meetings. The headline was, 'I will ensure a Sena chief minister'. Obviously, of course, not now, but later.
There is an obvious background to the interview’s content which has to be noted. Despite deciding to sit in the Opposition, then deciding to be a partner in the BJP-led government, and the subsequent sulks, pinpricks and outbursts, the Shiv Sena has remained in the post-poll arrangement in Maharashtra. Their calculation is apparent: being in power is more helpful when it comes to winning elections than being in the Opposition.
Sena’s first decision to sit in the Opposition was out of sense of pride that notwithstanding the perceived Modi wave in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it secured Assembly victories in 63 constituencies. This was despite the fact that it was a contest among four parties — BJP vs Congress vs Nationalist Congress Party vs Shiv Sena — as all partners broke their respective alliances.
Those 63 seats against the former ally BJP’s 122 was a heady achievement. That it was achieved by Uddhav Thackeray in the absence of the founder of the party, Bal Thackeray, added lustre to the trophy. But when NCP decided to offer support to the BJP from outside, Sena buckled. BJP plus Sena could have been a tough cookie. NCP had to be kept back, and the Sena changed its mind. It accepted a minor role in a post-poll partnership in the government.
The spectacular wins in the Assembly polls make Uddhav Thackeray hark back to the times when the party was in alliance for 25 years. He describes those years, the second half of Sena’s life, as the years when the party "rotted". That is, however, a wrong thing to say as the party benefitted and got into power, something which was much more important than ruling civic bodies.
However, what he may have meant is that had the Sena not partnered with the BJP on a set seat-sharing pattern in every Assembly elections, the party would have built itself better. If 63 was possible despite the BJP, imagine what it could have done all by itself! This is, however, a flawed logic, because both the parties had needed each other. Sena had cadres in towns and cities, BJP a network across Maharashtra.
But yes, till Narendra Modi came on the scene, it was BJP which needed the partner more. That the BJP rode piggyback on the Sena, taking a junior partner’s place during their alliance, is being glossed over by the BJP. It must be hurting the Sena. Never mind that compared to BJP's 28 percent vote share in 2014, Sena had secured a tad over 19 percent. Though in a first-past-the-post system, percentages do not necessarily translate into votes.
The intra-partnership sword — covered in a nice dependable foil so blood is not drawn — is being brandished. Unless that was done, the Sena would blur its identity in a BJP-led government. Thackeray does not hesitate to say in the interview that while he has no issues with Devendra Fadnavis, the government is a non-performer. But Sena glosses over its own presence in the government. It behaves like an internal opposition, which is confusing the cadre. They have conveyed it to Thackeray.
The interview is thus directed towards the cadre; it lays out a roadmap for the party which would help materialise the dream he has articulated – of the Sena having its man as the chief minister. As expected, the timeline is not specified, but it won't be any time soon unless the Sena steps out of the partnership and the NCP does not support the BJP from the outside. It is remarkable that NCP has not withdrawn the offer it made in 2014.
What the interview does not clarify is what the Sena will decide vis-à-vis its participation in the government if its alliance with the BJP in the civic bodies — especially Mumbai — was to break. What Thackeray is saying is that both the Sena and the BJP are ready to go it alone, but that decision would depend on the conduct of the BJP.
It's possible that one day, the Sena will be unequivocal about this, but till then everything he said in the interview will be heard over and over again till 2017.