Why BJP-Shiv Sena Ties Are Heading For a Split

Relations between the two coalition partners have always been rocky, but so far both are just hanging on

Mumbai: From ‘maximum city’ to splitsville or, to be linguistically correct, splitsnagar, the uneasy marriage between the BJP and the Shiv Sena has taken one more decisive step closer to a divorce. In two separate but not unconnected incidents, the Sena has undermined the Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis and shown him whose writ really runs in Mumbai.

Political analysts are now talking of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ the split will happen – though the parting, whenever it comes, will be initiated by the Sena at a time and manner of its choosing. Some sources say Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is closely watching the Bihar elections and has already told his ministers to be ready to quit. He feels the BJP’s popularity is sinking and this could adversely affect the Sena too.

The Sena has already begun its muscle flexing and is behaving as if it is in the opposition. Last week, the party declared that it wouldn’t allow the Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali to perform in Mumbai at a commemoration event for the late Indian ghazal singer Jagjit Singh. Fadnavis promised all security for the event, but the organisers had already gone and met Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and decided to pull the plug. That they did not see fit to take the CM up on his assurance is telling.

The Sudheendra Kulkarni episode is even more of a “victory” for the Sena. Kulkarni had invited, under the aegis of the Observer Research Foundation, the former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri to release his book Neither a Hawk nor a Dove. It was a routine event – the book had already been launched in Delhi – but the Sena saw red because a Pakistani was involved, “while Indian soldiers were being killed on the border.”

Ink on Kulkarni’s face

On Monday morning the Sena’s stormtroopers took drastic action – they doused ink on Kulkarni, who is himself a former BJP member and was a close aide of first, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Lal Krishna Advani. The Sena also declared that it would not let the event take place later in the day.

Fadnavis promised all police protection and in the end, the function did go ahead amidst strict security. Some reports suggest that the Sena chief at the last moment called off a plan to shout anti-Pakistani slogans inside the hall. Fadnavis, who was determined to ensure that the book launch took place, said Mumbai was not a “banana republic”, a remark the Sena saw as insulting.

The Sena had once again achieved its objective of embarrassing the very government it is part of. With its dramatic act, the party killed two birds with one stone — it showed the chief minister that the BJP had no real clout in Mumbai, the state’s capital,  but it also sent out a clear message to its own cadre that the party was now in election mode and that they should be ready to come out on the streets if necessary.

Elections to the municipal corporation of Kalyan-Dombivli (on the outskirts of Mumbai) are due on November 1 and the two parties are still not sure if they will fight them together. The Sena sees no reason to give up its influence in the region and will not want to tie up a coalition unless it is on very favourable terms to itself. Even if it does this time round, there is very little possibility that both will jointly fight the elections to the Mumbai municipal corporation in early 2017. The Sena has ruled the city’s rich civic body for over 25 years and wants to continue to do so. To ensure that, it will have to part ways with the BJP sooner or later because the longer it stays with the BJP, the more the chances of a joint fight. The Sena wants to keep its troops in readiness for the coming political battles.

Sena’s grouse

The Sena’s grouse with the BJP, however is not only based on political calculations. It genuinely feels humiliated by the BJP, which till 2014, was the junior partner of the alliance and now behaves like big brother. Right from the shock parting of ways before the elections to the refusal to hand over any “prestigious” portfolios to the Sena after the latter joined the government, the Mumbai-based party has felt it is being given the short shrift. Sena ministers routinely complain of not getting work from their seniors. The Sena also has not forgotten that during the election campaign, Modi called the Sena a “hafta” (extortionist) party.

The Sena gets back by sniping at the BJP in ways that makes the latter squirm. Digs and taunts at the party and at Narendra Modi in Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece, are a routine occurrence. Modi’s many initiatives are mocked off and on, knowing fully well that the BJP will not stand for its leader being criticised. The BJP on its part is confident that it now has a bigger following than the Sena and does not want to be dictated to by a mere local party.

The BJP is less vocal in its criticism, but when Narendra Modi came to Mumbai last week to inaugurate a slew of projects, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray was reportedly sent an invitation at the very last minute, a clear snub to him. Sensing this would happen, he left the city to travel around the state.

But, despite the provocations, both need each other for the time being. The Sena does not want to leave the government right now — it will calculate when a parting suits it best. The BJP needs the Sena even more — though the Fadnavis government will not fall immediately if the Sena withdraws, the BJP will have to depend on Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, which would demolish the BJP’s claim of being against corruption. Maharashtra is not a state the BJP wants to let go of, especially as there are massive infrastructure projects in the offing in Mumbai. The Sena knows that the BJP needs it more than it needs the BJP and consequently loses no opportunity to push it around.

While Kulkarni got the worse of it, the Sena achieved what it wanted to – that is to embarrass Fadnavis. The Pakistani angle was a red herring, because on several occasions the Sena has roughed up people who had nothing to do with Pakistan. Within the Sena ranks, there is a new charge that the party is getting back to its old ways. Whether this kind of behaviour still has political value, considering that young Mumbai residents are more interested in jobs and infrastructure rather than street violence, is a moot point. This is what the Sena knows best and this is what it will do.

Fadnavis has not covered himself in glory by promising security to the book launch on the one hand while talking about how he would not allow “anti-India sentiments” at the event. That plays into the Sena’s hands. At the moment, the Sena holds a card or two more. Political observers are keenly watching to see when it will play them.