BJP's rise in Maharashtra and Shiv Sena's erosion made conflict inevitable: Current impasse may actually serve state's long-term interests
The Sena’s erosion of strength has been inversely proportional to BJP’s rise in prowess in Maharashtra. BJP’s appeal — under a charismatic national leader and a chief minister in Devendra Fadnavis who has created his own space — now overshadows Sena’s. In response, Sena has started behaving almost like an Opposition party to hold its ground, and the latest Assembly poll results give it a tad more better bargaining power which it wishes to exploit to the hilt.
With the alliance partners together accounting for 161 seats in 288-seat Assembly and comfortably crossing the halfway mark, nobody anticipated the kind of drama that unfolded over the next few days
Assembly results placed BJP a the single-largest party with 105 seats (of 164 it contested). Shiv Sena came second with 56 of 124 seats, while the NCP ended up with a creditable 54 and Congress 44
In this scenario, the line between BJP's allies and Opposition has blurred to the extent that even allies of BJP are wary of the its expansionist policies and ability to usurp and dominate new political space
When the Assembly election results came out on 24 October, it seemed all the suspense was centred around Haryana where the BJP had fallen short of the majority mark and had no pre-poll alliances to see it through. Analysts appeared hardly bothered about Maharashtra.
The talking points centred around whether the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance would sweep the elections, as exit polls indicated, or whether the Congress-NCP Opposition would hold its own. There was also some interest on Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray's son Aaditya becoming the first-ever Thackeray to contest polls, and speculation on whether he could be the chief minister.
With the alliance partners together accounting for 161 seats in 288-seat Assembly and comfortably crossing the halfway mark, nobody anticipated the kind of drama that unfolded over the next few days.
And yet, more than 10 days after the results were published, we are nowhere close to a government formation in Maharashtra while in Haryana, the BJP has went ahead and tied up with Dushyant Chautala’s Jannyak Janata Party to give Chief Minister Manohar Khattar a second consecutive term in office.
In contrast, the sniping between BJP and its oldest ally Shiv Sena reached such epic proportions that the pre-poll alliance is in danger of coming unstuck and we have a growing buzz of President’s Rule.
To recall, the Assembly results placed BJP a the single-largest party with 105 seats (of 164 it contested). Shiv Sena came second with 56 of 124 seats, while the NCP ended up with a creditable 54 and Congress 44. The BJP-Sena tally is 161, while the other pre-poll alliance between Congress and NCP comes to 98. The voters have clearly given a mandate in favour of the BJP-Sena alliance (albeit with a reduced vote share, but this interpretation is subject to caveats) and asked the NCP-Congress to play the role of an Opposition.
What, then, is the issue that has prevented a government formation even more than 10 days after results? And why has Opposition parties gone on an overdrive after suddenly sensing an opportunity to keep the BJP out of power? The answer lies in the ‘new normal’ of Indian politics where a hegemonic BJP is the gravitational force around which national politics revolve and evolves, and all other parties (regional or national, allies or Opposition) develop their strategies in relation to their equation with the BJP.
In this scenario, the line between BJP’s allies and Opposition has blurred to the extent that even allies of BJP are wary of the its expansionist policies and ability to usurp and dominate new political space.
Before the rise of Narendra Modi as BJP’s central figure, assisted ably by his trusted general Amit Shah, the BJP’s influence remained limited to the Hindi belt in the north. Coinciding with Modi’s move to the Centre after three successful stints as Gujarat chief minister, the party underwent a massive and aggressive geographical expansion.
It assumed power in areas where it earlier had little or no presence (in north Indian states such as Assam and Tripura) and started flexing its muscle in the crucial eastern seaboard states such as West Bengal and Odisha where it has emerged as the principal Opposition to the regional ruling parties: completely usurping the space of Congress.
While the southern belt still remains resistant to BJP’s charms, the party has been able to reinforce its footprint in Karnataka, which it now rules, and strike up key alliances in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, that gives BJP a sort of toehold.
There’s no reason to think, however, that BJP’s hegemonic rise has come only at the cost of regional and national Opposition. The saffron unit has started eating into the political space of even its allies, and herein lies the Maharashtra rub.
In 1995, when BJP was the junior partner in Maharashtra and Shiv Sena the ruling hegemon, the BJP settled for a deputy chief minister’s post. While Manohar Joshi became the state chief minister, BJP’s Gopinath Munde was happy to be his deputy. That was then.
The increase in BJP’s relative (in relation to the weakening position of other parties) and absolute (increase in vote share) strength has now given it control over the levers of power which it is unwilling to relinquish.
We must be careful here. This is not to say that BJP’s dramatic expansion of hold over India has made the party intolerant to coalition politics. Though such a narrative has been at play for some time, the reality is quite the contrary. With Shah as the president (now joined by Jagat Prakash Nadda as the working president), the BJP stresses on stitching a careful mosaic of alliance partners and sticks to the principle of coalition politics.
However, this relationship is often challenged by the inescapable tension that arises due to BJP’s expansionism and the overwhelming popularity of its central figure: Modi.
While the BJP intends to take all its allies along, its partners are faced with the reality of accepting the partnership on BJP’s terms (where it plays the big brother) or going on its own. In the case of Shiv Sena, this tension has a more complex hue. Sena is not only BJP’s oldest ally, but also its ideological fellow traveler. Ideally, they should have had no issues in getting along. The ideological congruence, however, is challenged by two factors: demography and ambition.
Demographically, the influx of workers from other states — notably from the norther, Hindi-speaking belt in Mumbai in search of opportunities — has given BJP a workaround to counter the Marathi ‘asmita’ that has come to represent Sena’s politics.
Worringly for the Sena, however, it has noticed that in Maharashtra, BJP’s expansion is coming at its own expense since the NCP and Congress have their own committed voter bases.
As this piece in Hindustan Times argues, "Sena’s vote share in the state dropped by about three percent, its presence in key cities is now diminished, for the second time in a row it won fewer seats than the BJP in Mumbai. This coupled with the dismissive treatment it received from the Devendra Fadnavis government last five years has led to a trust deficit between them.”
The Sena’s erosion of strength has been inversely proportional to BJP’s rise in prowess. BJP’s appeal — under a charismatic national leader and a chief minister in Devendra Fadnavis who has created his own space — now overshadows Sena’s.
In response, Sena has started behaving almost like an Opposition party to hold its ground, and the latest Assembly poll results give it a tad more better bargaining power which it wishes to exploit to the hilt. In Sena’s case, the demand for a share of chief minister’s post and key portfolios is less a reflection of the party’s expansionist ambitions and more a desperation to hold on to its base amid an onslaught from the BJP.
Sena probably has calculated that unless it manages to hold on to the levers of power, its status in Maharashtra, the only state where it enjoys any prowess, will soon be fatally diminished.
For the BJP, Maharashtra is a crucial state which it does not want to let slip, and having played the role of junior partner to Sena, it now wants to reinforce its control and make it clear that it remains the big brother.
The BJP wouldn’t be making a mistake in assuming that its strike rate in Maharashtra, even though it has fewer seats compared to 2014 when it went alone, is even better this time.
Besides, had the BJP and Sena not pitted rival 'Independents' and scuppered each other’s chances, their collective tally would have gone up. Fadnavis and party’s central leadership, therefore, will never agree on a power-sharing formula when it comes to the chief minister’s chair.
In a way, the bickering between the two allies is good for the state. The pre-poll alliance was clearly shaky from the beginning, and even if the two parties agree on a formula, that perhaps won’t lead to a stable government because the Sena will increase its ‘Opposition party’ act by several notches.
Which leads us to the million-dollar question: What will be the likely outcome in Maharashtra? We have to wait and see how the cookie crumbles but a Sena-NCP government with outside support from Congress is a real possibility. That may also serve BJP’s long-term chances.
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