Mumbai: It is a repeat of 2014 for the Shiv Sena and the Bhartiya Janata Party in Maharashtra, as the two saffron parties have once again begun warring over their seat shares in the upcoming state assembly election. The Sena has expressed its desire to have an “equal share” and wants the two parties to contest 135 seats each of the total 288 in the state, leaving the rest to their respective allies. The BJP, however, has refused to give in to the demand and has asked for a bigger share of the pie, up to 160 seats.
“It is as if the same script is playing out once again in the state,” a senior Sena leader told The Wire, comparing the present deadlock with what had happened in 2014. The two parties had their first seat-sharing discussions on September 4, at Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil’s residence in Mumbai. Since then, the two parties have gone back and forth several times and no consensus has been reached yet.
Sources in the Sena have hinted at a possibility of the two parties contesting independently if the party doesn’t get as many seats as it has been demanding. After the first two meetings ended in a deadlock, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray reportedly called an urgent meeting with the party’s MPs, MLAs and political strategists to discuss a possibility of going solo in the upcoming elections.
Just days before the state assembly elections in 2014, the two parties had put an end to their 25-year-old alliance. The BJP had won 122 seats, falling short of the majority mark and the Sena’s tally was 63. Both parties agreed on a post-election alliance to form the government.
A different situation today
However, the situation today is very different, political analysts point out. Even though senior Sena leaders have claimed the party is prepared to fight the elections on its own if an alliance is not worked out, analysts say Sena stands to lose a lot more than the BJP.
Hemant Desai, a senior political journalist and analyst, said that in 2014, even when the Sena fought alone, it was still looked at as a part of the larger saffron unit. “The Modi wave benefited both the BJP and the Sena equally in the state. But over the past five years, apart from the Modi wave, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has also managed to build his own image as an indomitable leader,” he said.
Despite their post-election alliance in 2014, the Sena has continued to be one of the BJP’s most vocal “opponents” over the past five years. Through his party mouthpiece Saamana, Thackeray launched continuous, unrestrained attacks on the BJP from time to time. However, in February this year, months before the general elections, the parties decided to unite “for the larger Hindutva agenda”. In the presence of BJP chief Amit Shah and Thackeray, the two parties announced an alliance.
The alliance helped the parties steamroll the state, winning 41 out of the 48 Lok Sabha seats. Soon after the general elections, the Sena has again been critical of the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre and Fadnavis’s government in the state. Through its editorials, the Sena’s mouthpiece has been critical of the BJP governance, even playing the role of opposition on several occasions. In Mumbai, the Sena has decided to oppose Fadnavis’s move to axe over 2,600 trees in the Aarey forest.
Spate of defections
Despite their differences, the two parties together have, with clinical precision, managed to kill the already ailing opposition in the state. Over the past few months, several senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress leaders have joined the BJP.
Desai, the analyst, says the defections have benefitted the BJP more than the Sena. “Until 2014, among the two, the Sena was able to project itself with a local, ‘son of the soil’ image. The BJP, with several “outside” leaders, was still looked at as a national party. But the equation has tilted ever since. The BJP has several Maratha leaders now; they have actively invoked warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in their state political discourse and even managed to rope Shivaji’s descendant Udayanraje Bhosale into the party. All this will prove beneficial in the elections,” he says. Bhosale, a three-time MP from Satara, was one of the most influential NCP leaders in the state.
The entry of new leaders into the BJP and Sena has also rattled their old cadres. A senior BJP leader told The Wire that the Congress and NCP leaders who joined the BJP are all “very senior”. “They joined us with a clear ambition to improve their political relevance in the state. If the BJP gives away equal seats to the Sena, it will end up compromising on old party cadres. These are contentious issues and Fadnavis would not want to upset his own party leaders,” the senior BJP leader said.
Until the last month, during media interactions, Fadnavis maintained that “the BJP would play the role of a big brother in the state” and ensure that the alliance continues. But as Sena leaders began sending out feelers, Fadnavis’s tone also changed. His recent statements to the media have remained non- committal, which has also been his stance during talks between the two parties. “The election dates will be announced before the weekend. By then, senior BJP leaders would have taken a call on the alliance,” said a BJP leader.