Shiv Sena, BJP Turf War Heats Up As Maharashtra Prepares for Civil Polls

Shiv Sena is fighting for survival, while the BJP to wants to take control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Asia’s richest civic body.

In happier times: Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackarey. Credit: PTI

In happier times: Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackarey. Credit: PTI

Mumbai: Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s announcement of going it alone in the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) by parting ways with the BJP has come neither as a shock nor surprise to anyone from Maharashtra.

It was clear since the emergence of Narendra Modi and the death of Sena founder Bal Thackeray that a turf war over who is the ‘boss’ of Mumbai was inevitable between the Sena and the BJP.

Elections to 10 municipal corporations, including Mumbai, Thane and Pune, will be held on February 21, while polls to 26 zilla parishads will be held in two phases on February 16 and 21, followed by the counting of votes on February 23.

Thackeray has announced that his party will contest all these elections on its own, unlike in the past when the BJP was its partner especially in Mumbai.

The elections are significant as over seven crore voters in major cities and vast rural stretches will elect 1,258 corporators, 1,558 members of district councils and 3,116 panchayat samiti members.

The most important elections is of course that of the BMC. It will be a trial of survival for the Shiv Sena, which controls the BMC at present, while the BJP, now the dominant partner in Maharashtra, is seeing this as an opportunity to take control of Asia’s richest civic body and create a space for itself in Mumbai’s political landscape.

According to political observers, the BMC election will primarily be a Shiv Sena vs BJP battle. The BJP appears keen to unseat the Sena by highlighting the alleged corruption within the 227-seat BMC.

A long time coming

The parting of ways between the Shiv Sena and BJP was not unexpected as Uddhav had been sulking since 2014 when the BJP, riding on the Modi wave, made a clean sweep in the Lok Sabha elections.

With the BJP securing an absolute majority, the Sena suddenly lost its “elder brother” status in Maharashtra in the oldest ideological alliance within the NDA, effected by the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.

The Shiv Sena sees Mumbai its “home pitch”, where the senior Thackeray founded the party by exploiting the growing unrest among the city’s youth in the 1960s at a time when there was a great influx of people from South India to the megalopolis.

Since 2014, the Shiv Sena is feeling threatened as the BJP has left no opportunity to humiliate and corner it, and send blunt message that it should recognise the changed situation.

The severe strains in the relationship were visible in the state assembly polls, held in October 2014, which saw NCP chief Sharad Pawar adding fuel to the fire by silently working to break up the Sena-BJP alliance.

Pushed to the wall, the Sena was bitter about the BJP’s assembly poll campaign, with Uddhav once likening Modi and his cabinet to the army of Afzal Khan, the Bijapur general who had attacked the dominion of Shivaji Maharaj in the 17th century. ‘Afzal Khan’ is considered as one of the worst abuses in the state that revers the Maratha king.

Hurt by the attack, Modi ensured the Sena suffered ignominy for a while before it was accepted as an ally in the Devendra Fadnavis government. The portfolios offered to the Sena were also not that important with the BJP projecting a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.

Split only on paper?

Uddhav’s announcement of going it alone is being derided by Sena critics as a “divorce only on paper” as he has not pulled out of the alliance in the state and the Centre on the plea of stability.

If Uddhav is claiming that the 25-year alliance with the BJP is now no longer favourable for the Sena, then why he is not altogether snapping ties with the party at the Centre and in Maharashtra, his detractors say.

This means there is no danger whatsoever to the Fadnavis government.

Pawar is ready to fish in troubled waters if the situation arises. When asked if the NCP would support the BJP should the Sena withdraw from the alliance in the state, Pawar is reported to have said: “I don’t answer hypothetical questions. Let them take a call and come for discussions. We will take a call.”

Incidently, Uddhav’s announcement has come at a time when Pawar has been awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, by the Modi government in what Uddhav called ‘gurudakshina‘.

If Pawar’s party decides to bail out the government if 63-member strong Shiv Sena decides to sit in the opposition, then there will be no danger to the government with the BJP having 122 members in the 288-member House.

But Pawar is his own man who regales in delivering political googlies and no one knows how they turn.

The Maratha strongman is not exactly happy over the way the Modi dispensation is being run and had been critical of demonetisation.

One thing is certain. Political equations in Maharashtra are undergoing a change and the results of the muncipal and zilla parishad elections will show which way the wind blows.

Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist. 

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