The General Election is only 14 months away and the BJP is already working on ways to repeat its 2014 performance. However, in recent times, the party's political equations with such regional parties as the Shiv Sena, Telugu Desam Party and the Akali Dal have been strained. In the case of the Sena, this strain has been made very public with party supremo Uddhav Thackeray declaring his intent on 23 January to end the coalition with the BJP. Now, it appears the BJP leadership wants to keep the NDA intact and to that effect, its leaders held meetings with Sena leaders in Mumbai, Aurangabad and Delhi. Further, the party has also offered its partner in the state the chance to contest between 140 and 144 seats seats in the Assembly polls slated for 2019.
Although it was three weeks ago that the Sena unilaterally and unequivocally decided to end the coalition and go it alone in the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, its leaders have been making various statements along those lines throughout the past year. Public criticism of the state government — of which the Sena is a member — and jabs at the Narendra Modi government at the Centre notwithstanding, there appears to be a realisation in the BJP and Shiv Sena camps that the parties need each other in the upcoming elections.
With that in mind, there have been three top secret meetings between members of the two parties since November 2017. Highly-placed BJP sources confirmed to Firstpost that the the plan to restore the coalition came about in October 2017, leading to the meetings between the parties. The BJP committee for the first meeting included Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Revenue Minister Chandrakant Patil and Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar. Other ministers like Vinod Tawde and Pankaja Munde, and former minister Eknath Khadse have reportedly been kept out of these meetings. Representing the Shiv Sena were Uddhav's personal assistant and party secretary Milind Narvekar, Rajya Sabha MP Anil Desai and Industry Minister Subhash Desai. Sena MP and spokesperson Sanjay Raut has been excluded for the time being.
Highly-placed sources confirmed that in the first week of November, a meeting was held between Narvekar and Mungantiwar in Mumbai. In the meeting, Mungantiwar appealed to the Sena to jointly contest the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Further, it was stated that if rebel leader — a member of the Shiv Sena and later, the Congress in the past — Narayan Rane was proving problematic to the alliance, he could be sidelined.
Sources also confirmed that the BJP was willing to employ a 50:50 seat-sharing formula to apportion seats among itself and the Sena. Presently, there are 122 BJP MLAs and 63 Sena in the Assembly. And so, leaving aside the 185 seats that the parties already hold, the BJP would only then be contesting 22 of the remaining 103 seats, with the Sena taking on the remaining 81 seats. It was sometime after this meeting that the BJP publicly stated it was ready for an alliance in 2019.
The second meeting took place in the first week of January at Aurangabad in the state's Marathwada region. This was a couple of weeks before the Sena's announcement that it would be parting ways with the BJP. This meeting took place on the sidelines of a function and featured BJP state president and MP Raosaheb Danve, Shiv Sena MP Chandrakant Khaire and Minister of State Arjun Khotkar. Danve provided assurances that an alliance would result in a return to power in 2019, however, going it solo would mean a cake walk for Opposition parties, the Congress and NCP. He reiterated that in rural Maharashtra, the parties needed each other. However, it was in that meeting that Khaire provided examples of how the BJP was preparing to go it alone in the 2019 elections and haf already selected a candidate to contest for his own constituency. Both sides arrived at the conclusion that no decision had been taken, and that a final call would be taken by Amit Shah and Uddhav.
The third of these meetings was held last Friday in the National Capital. Sources from the Sena as well as the BJP confirmed that the top leadership of both parties was aware of the nature and content of the meeting. With the first phase of the Budget Session of Parliament coming to a close on 9 February, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Sena Rajya Sabha MP Anil Desai held a 10-minute-long closed-door meeting at Jaitley's Sansad Bhavan office and a longer one at Jaitley's official residence late that evening. After an inconclusive first meet that saw Desai reluctant to share his party's view, it was at Jaitley's residence that he offered the Sena the option of continuing the alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in exchange for the 50:50 seat-share in the Assembly polls. In the second meeting Jaitely has given offer to Shiv Sena that any how the alliance will continue in 2019 parliament election. According to a top Sena leader on condition of anonymity, it was between the two Delhi meetings that Uddhav gave Desai the go-ahead to discuss the nitty-gritties.
In the Lok Sabha, the Sena has 18 MPs, while the BJP has 23 (of a total 48 seats allocated to Maharashtra). The senior Sena leader told Firstpost that the feeling in the party is that it has been neglected since the day it joined hands with the government at the Centre.
"It is of concern that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is losing popularity and credibility across the country. The results of the recent election in Gujarat show that voters from his own state are fed up with Modi’s jumlabaaji. In Maharashtra too, Fadnavis is going the same way, without any concrete work to show for the past three years," he said.
"The issue of Maratha and Dhangar reservations still exist and across the state, questions are being asked of the historic farmer loan waiver scheme fiasco. So, day-by-day, the humiliation (for the Sena) continues to grow and it was on 23 January that Uddhav decided to go public about his resolve to end the alliance with the BJP. Further, the Sena will not tie up with any other party," he added.
Meanwhile, Mungantiwar confirmed to Firstpost that he had indeed met Narvekar with a view to bringing the natural allies back together again. He explained that the prospect of the Congress and NCP joining hands would be perilous for the BJP and Sena if they were to go it alone. "If the Congress and NCP come together, the mathematics shows them as getting 1.85 crore votes whereas the Sena and BJP together accounted for 2.8 crore votes in total. So we discussed this scenario and what to do about it," he said.
"Also, after 15 years of a Congress-NCP regime, the voters of the state gave the mandate to the Sena-BJP in 2014, so why not continue as allies in 2019? I stand to make no personal gains from a tie-up, but it will benefit the state," claimed Mungantiwar. "I am very confident that we will come back to power if we form an alliance and I will try my best with the Sena. To stop the Congress and NCP from returning to power, I will do whatever I can as a small karyakarta of my party."
As for the Desai-Jaitley meeting, Mungantiwar noted that the BJP's central leadership also sees the Sena as a natural ally, and so, the results will be better for both parties in a coalition.
Desai, however, told Firstpost that the meeting was not held in an official capacity. "In the Budget Session, every MP meets other MPs. Jaitley is the finance minister and I am a Rajya Sabha MP, so it's only natural to exchange greetings," he said.
When asked about his meetings with Jaitley (first, at his office and then, at his residence), Desai flatly denied that they had taken place. "The status of our party's alliance with the BJP, as Uddhav said, is that it will be brief. As far as I'm concerned, the Sena has already announced that it will contest the 2019 elections without anyone, which means we'll go it alone."
On his part, Khaire told Firstpost, "We normally meet Danve at district functions. But as far as an alliance with the BJP goes, it's not for me to pass comment. It is the prerogative of the party president and his decision. This is just part of the BJP's game and pressure tactics to indulge Sena leaders in discussions about an alliance on one hand, and on the other, to prepare for all 41 seats of the Marathwada region. In my constituency, Danve has already identified BJP candidates. So how can we trust the party?"
He went on to claim, "After the Gujarat election results, the BJP's fear of losing battles began to grow. Also, after Uddhav's announcement that we will end the alliance, Sainiks and office-bearers across the state have been preparing for a solo battle."
He added that party has held no specific dialogue with Danve before 23 January, but the final decision would indeed be taken by Uddhav and Shah. "Only two leaders can decide fate of the alliance and nobody else," said Khaire.
The Shiv Sena and BJP marriage was on the rocks. It appears the leaders of both parties are now trying to patch up once again. The parties know that it will be difficult to go it alone against the combined might of the Congress and NCP in the state. This remains very much a 'wait-and-watch' situation that will likely unfold over the next few months.
Updated Date: Feb 13, 2018 14:11 PM