Shiv Sena's attempt to hijack Ram Mandir issue from BJP comes at crucial time: Seat-sharing talks for polls are around the corner
At a Shiv Sena gathering at Ayodhya, Uddhav Thackeray had demanded that the BJP-led government declare a date for the construction of the Ram Mandir to start.
"Pehle Mandir, Phir Sarkar" — With this slogan, meaning first Ram Temple, then government, the Shiv Sena has made its intention clear. The party is rejuvenating its demand for a Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, and is trying to gather support for the movement.
The Sena leadership has ordered its cadres to mobilise crowds for the party's rallies to press for the demand for the temple. The Sena also plans to hold more such Ram Mandir-focussed rallies in the state's Vidarbha and Marathwada regions in the coming months, in an attempt to increase its vote base in these regions. This is not unlike the BJP's strategy to appeal to Hindu sentiments and make Ram Temple the focus of its campaigns ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections over development and other pressing issues like the state of the economy.
Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray's rally on Monday in Pandharpur in Maharashtra's Solapur district is the second such gathering the party has organised in a month to pressure the Centre on the Ram Mandir also, and also — one could say — to cement its image as another formidable Hindutva force. As a Sena leader confirmed, the Pandharpur rally is part of the party's strategy to promote Thackeray as a true Hindutva leader.
At Sena gatherings at Ayodhya on 24 and 25 November, Thackeray had demanded that the Narendra Modi government wake up from its "Kumbhakarna-like slumber" and declare a date for the construction of the Ram Temple to start. He had also urged the Centre to frame a legislation or ordinance to facilitate the construction, assuring his party's support for it. Thackeray's statement nearly sounded like a dare to the BJP, its ally in Maharashtra, though one that's hanging by a thread.
"Since we decided to go solo, we need to expand our base and win more seats," the same Sena leader was quoted as saying by The Indian Express. Although the Sena has reiterated on numerous occasions that the party will contest future elections solo, BJP chief Amit Shah said on 19 December that he was confident the Sena would be with them in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Thackeray-led party's Hindutva focus, and its attempt to hijack the Ram Temple dispute ahead of the parliamentary elections could be seen as a move to pressurise the BJP ahead of seat-sharing talks in Maharashtra. In a report on 21 December, The Times of India had quoted sources as saying that the BJP was in favour of beginning seat-sharing talks with the Shiv Sena for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
"The BJP needs the Sena as much as the Sena needs the BJP," the newspaper quoted a BJP functionary as saying. "Whatever may be the Sena's public posturing, it cannot join hands with the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine, nor can it venture to go alone in the polls."
The party functionary also highlighted the obvious: "We are aware that the Sena may demand more seats in the state Assembly elections. This can be mutually decided once we get down to the brass tacks."
In the current 289-member Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, the BJP has 122 seats, the Sena 63, Congress 42 and the NCP 41.
Furthermore, the BJP's drubbing in the three Hindi heartland states in the recently-concluded Assembly elections is another reason for the Shiv Sena's sub-par enthusiasm to ally with the BJP. The Sena doesn't want to be at the receiving end of people's anger against the BJP for the Centre's policies such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax.
Now, the Sena is mounting pressure on the BJP on the one subject the national party rakes up before every election. On 20 December, the Sena said the BJP's 2014 promise to construct the Ram Temple was another "jumla" (rhetoric) for the party, and that failing to achieve this would ultimately lead to its ouster. "When will achhe din come for Lord Ram, who has been living in an open tent for the past 25 years while those in power are warming their seats?," the Sena said in a sarcastic remark.
However, the BJP hasn't been entirely quiet about the Sena's attacks on it on the Ram Mandir dispute. "How can the Shiv Sena hijack the issue? The people who thrash north Indians and drive them out, who don't even have the mentality to serve humanity, how will they serve Lord Ram?" BJP MLA Surendra Singh had said after Thackeray's speeches at Ayodhya.
The Sena's renewed focus on Hindutva can possibly be explained with this statement by a Maharashtra BJP functionary: "Uddhav saheb knows that he cannot retain his 18 MPs and 63 MLAs in Maharashtra by basing his politics only on Marathi manoos. He needs to reach out to the larger Hindu constituency in Mumbai and Maharashtra even if he wants to renegotiate the terms of an alliance with the BJP."
Only time will tell if the BJP functionary's analysis holds true.
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