An Unhappy, Bickering Couple But Still a Marriage of Necessity


File photo of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray (PTI)

The sniping war between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra continues even one year after the formation of the NDA government at the Centre, but most of the firing has been from the latter’s side. Just the other day, the Shiv Sena let off a bit of a zinger when the party’s mouthpiece Saamna said that Mongolia was more fortunate than Maharashtra, because Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given the Asian nation a credit line of 1 billion dollars. Why couldn’t he show the same eagerness to Maharashtra where farmers are reeling under debt, asked the paper. With this one dig, the Sena established that not only was Modi more interested in foreign travel, he was also not concerned about the dying farmers of Maharashtra, where the BJP-Sena coalition rules.

The escalation has now gone up one slight notch because the BJP has hit back. The bigger party’s technique is a bit more subtle, because it does not want to be seen imitating the Sena; but it’s prime objective is to capture the Sena’s space and win over the Marathi manoos of the state.

Addressing a state level BJP meeting late last week, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said fighting the assembly elections alone had turned out to be a good decision. “It was only after severing our ties with the Shiv Sena that we realized how strong we were,” he said. The BJP had won an unprecedented 122 seats, emerging as the single largest party, vindicating its decision to break off a 25-year-old relationship with the Sena. Fadnavis’s statement was a gentle dig, but the message to the Sena was clear—don’t think we can’t do without you.

In the past six months or so, ever since the two parties came together to form a coalition, relations between them have been uneasy. The Shiv Sena says that its ministers have been given weak portfolios and hardly get to take any crucial decisions. One way the party reacts is to keep up a steady stream of taunts against not just its alliance partner but also against Narendra Modi, which irritates the BJP no end. After the BJP’s spectacular loss in the Delhi elections, the Sena’s newspaper said that the national party had been reduced to “dirt” (a sly reference to the broom, the symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party) and that Modi should take the blame for the disaster. Another irritant is the Jaitapur nuclear plant. The Sena is against it and is stepping up its campaign, while Fadnavis is determined to push it

On its part, the BJP has been gradually moving into Sena territory, by appropriating Shivaji and aiming to capture the Marathi youth vote, which it thinks is less interested in a nativist programme and more in jobs and personal growth. Given that the BJP did well in Sena-stronghold Mumbai during the assembly elections, the former may have worked out its calculations well.

The BJP is also helped by the fact that Fadnavis, after an unsteady start, is now on firmer ground. His detractors within the party, who were unhappy that he got the CM’s job, are largely quiet and it is clear that he has the blessings of the Modi-Amit Shah combine. Fadnavis has travelled with the Prime Minister to China, an honour not given to other BJP chief ministers. At the state convention, he equated Amit Shah to Lord Ram, which couldn’t have displeased the BJP chief.

Fadnavis has also pushed the RSS agenda of banning beef and further delighted Maharashtrians by enforcing a rule that multiplexes must compulsorily show Marathi films during prime time. Besides, he is constantly talking of infrastructure and making Mumbai a financial hub, which pleases the city’s businessmen.

Nationalist Congress Party strongman Sharad Pawar had recently said that the alliance will not last long and certainly not till the elections to the Mumbai municipal corporation, the richest civic body in India, scheduled to be held in early 2017. His assessment is shared by many analysts. Mumbai’s civic body is the only real power base left with the Sena now. It faces the dilemma of going it alone and testing its strength against the BJP in Mumbai, or partnering with the BJP and handing over some seats at the outset – a Hobson’s choice. Soon after making his comments at the BJP executive meet, Fadnavis declared the BJP would like to partner with the Shiv Sena for the civic elections; the ball is now in the Sena’s court. If he forms a joint front, Uddhav Thackeray will certainly aim to extract his pound of flesh. There is no danger to the alliance for the time being, but through the period they are together, they will continue to be an unhappy, bickering couple.