Mumbai: The high stakes battle in Mumbai between the Shiv Sena and BJP is getting more interesting and exciting as ‘D-Day’ approaches.
Ahead of the February 21 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections, the million dollar question is whether the Shiv Sena will become the first NDA partner to leave the ruling alliance at the Centre, fed up with the ‘big brother’ attitude of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Will the bitterly contested BMC elections ultimately lead to the Maratha party parting ways with the ruling BJP in Maharashtra too?
The fact of the matter is that the two oldest ideological partners are at loggerheads like never before.They are hurling invectives at each other, unprecedented even among sworn political rivals.
That the Mumbai civic polls could ultimately turn into a full-scale war between the two parties is becoming increasingly clear, with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray now declaring it a ‘battle for the pride of Mumbai and self respect of Maharashtra’.
Uddhav says ties with the BJP are on a “notice period“, brushing aside questions over why he is not withdrawing from the state government and the Centre and is only going it alone in the civic polls.
“It is like living together after a divorce,” says Congress leader Anant Gadgil, a sentiment echoed by other detractors of the Shiv Sena.
Unique to the current tussle is Thackeray’s consistent attack on Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, contending that Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is just carrying out the orders of the high command to “save” his chair.
Fadnavis is leading the BJP campaign in the BMC polls, overshadowing all other party leaders, including state party chief Raosaheb Danve Patil.
Uddhav has been sulking for a while and the BJP’s campaign attack claiming under the Sena rule Mumbai turned into “Patna” has added fuel to the fire. The BJP’s allegations of a “mafia raj” running the BMC has already hurt the Sena plenty.
Unmistakably targeting Modi, he has signalled that his patience is wearing thin.
“You get power riding on a wave. But that does not mean you become all powerful. You have to toil hard to retain power and certainly you have to retain friends,” he told Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna.
Wait and watch
Political observers say Uddhav is biding his time, believing that the time to hit back will come sooner rather than later. This comes amid projections that the BJP is unlikely to perform well in the five states going to the polls, the results of which are due on March 11.
Uddhav is playing a high-stakes battle to regain supremacy in the megalopolis where it has dominated affairs for several years since its emergence.
Uddhav has to show that he is no less a general than his late father Bal Thackarey, founder of the Shiv Sena and who ran it with an iron hand while forcing the BJP to play a second fiddle without much murmur.
Bal was known as “Hindu Hriday Samrat” as he originally espoused the cause of an aggressive Hindutva. Modi and Shah were known admire him.
But Uddhav is in a catch-22 situation. If the Sena does well in Mumbai and gains power of the BMC on its own or at least emerges the single largest party, he could call the shots and he could seize the initiative. But if the party fails to retain its dominance on its home pitch and the BJP comes first in Mumbai, Uddhav will have to bear further humiliation. There is no place for laggards in politics.
It is only natural that with Shiv Sena deciding to go it alone in city corporations and other civic polls across Maharashtra, the focus has shifted to the stability of the BJP-led state government.
Sena ministers in the Fadnavis government say they have their resignations ready to send and are waiting for the signal from their party chief.
The BJP circles, however, refuse to give much credence to such statements.
Significantly, the Sharad Pawar-led NCP had pledged outside support to the BJP when it emerged the single largest party but fell short of absolute majority in 2014 assembly polls. However, Pawar recently said “There are rumours being spread that NCP is becoming closer to the BJP. This is absolutely false news. NCP will never support BJP”.
Elections to 10 municipal corporations, including the cash-rich BMC, 25 zilla parishads and 283 panchayats are to be held from February 16-21.
Shiv Sena insiders say the outcome of these elections will determine whether the party pulls out of the Fadnavis government, which it joined in December 2014, two months after the state’s first ever BJP-led government came to power.
As for the Centre, the Sena does not carry much weight in the Modi dispensation with the BJP having a secured a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha polls in May 2014.
Incidentally, the Shiv Sena is the second largest constituent of the BJP-led NDA at the Centre, with 18 members in the Lok Sabha.
On the face of it, the BJP appears to have no problems with other allies so far. In Punjab, it was playing second fiddle to the ruling Shiromani Aakali Dal (SAD), amid indications that the party would go out of power after a 10-year reign in the 2017 assembly polls. A section of the BJP feels that the SAD is a liability and the BJP should chart out its own course in the state.
Uddhav has now been talking of the need to form an alliance of regional parties across the country. It shows he has stark choices after being pushed to the wall by an aggressive Modi.
The Sena chief has to prove his mettle in the BMC polls to be able to chart any future course of action. But one thing is clear, the Shiv Sainiks are charged up as they no longer have to carry the baggage of the BJP.
Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist.