While public attention firmly continues to be on the show of unity among India’s opposition parties, a political battle in a town on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border will have an impact on political equations, both regionally and nationally.
The battle is not new, but the intensity and the dynamics are. The Shiv Sena has dared its partner in government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by contesting the Lok Sabha by-polls for the Palghar constituency, a seat won by the BJP in 2014. Its member of parliament, Chintaman Wanga, passed away in January, necessitating a re-election which will be held on Monday (May 28). The Sena not just put up a candidate for the seat but also made his son, Srinivas its candidate, leaving the BJP stunned and angry.
With this one move, the Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s has not just provoked the BJP but also attempted to send out larger political signals.
Hours after the display of bonhomie among opposition parties in Bangalore at H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony, Thackeray, who declined an invitation to the event, issued a rather unexpected and an urgent call for unity in the opposition ranks. Further, in a first, Thackeray signalled his backing and willingness to be part of a united opposition front against the BJP.
Stopping short of taking names, Thackeray said that the time was ripe for all parties to unite against the ‘calamity’ facing the nation. “I appeal to all the others, be it the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and even the communists, let us not fight separate battles. This calamity threatens the nation’s existence and we must fight it before it is too late,” said Thackeray. This clarion call is most unusual for a party that has been vehemently against not just the Congress but also the Left.
The Sena chief made the statement while he was in the middle of a diatribe against the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor, which threatens to displace villagers in at least two villages of the Palghar constituency. Harshal Pradhan, the Sena’s spokesperson, said that the statement was as much about his intent in building an alliance against the BJP. “Thackeray has previously said that if Modi has to be uprooted, then all regional parties must come together. In fact, the Sena chief can even act as the anchor who can bring different parties together.” The relationship between the two allies, always troubled, is now turning fraught as the general elections come closer.
Thackeray, in recent times, has taken baby steps towards this. In March, he sent senior party leader Sanjay Raut to meet West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in New Delhi. This was preceded by Thackeray and Banerjee holding a closed-door meeting in November last year when the chief minister visited Mumbai. The Sena had also broken ranks with the NDA and joined a protest march of opposition MPs led by Banerjee to protest against demonetisation in November 2016.
More recently, the Sena chief has made common cause with the opposition in targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, be it over the BJP’s attempts to form the government in Karnataka, which the Sena termed a ‘murder’ of democracy, or its praise of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi for remaining ‘dignified’ in response to the BJP’s personal attacks.
But, what does Thackeray’s statement really mean coming from the Sena which, despite its daily criticism of the BJP, continues to share power both at the Centre and the state? Was it a signal of his intent towards linking his party to the larger opposition alliance or simply a shrewd political move to give its alliance partner the jitters?
Behind Thackeray’s move
Insiders say a bit of both. Thackeray has insisted that the Sena will call off the alliance and fight solo in the 2019 polls. So much so that the generally mild-mannered Sena chief has been constantly snubbing the BJP’s state leadership. Thackeray has rebuffed senior Maharashtra BJP leader and state finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar’s attempts to meet him at least twice in the past month. Exasperated, Mungantiwar said that the BJP would no longer take the initiative in having a pact with the Sena.
Similarly, last month, BJP chief Amit Shah, speaking at the party’s foundation day rally in Mumbai, offered the Sena an olive branch and said he ‘sincerely wished’ that the two parties jointly fought the polls. The Sena was quick to issue a terse rejection of Shah’s offer.
At the core of the Sena’s confidence is the growing feeling within the party that as the polls come closer and with Modi’s popularity on the wane, the opposition’s talk of forging a joint front will force the BJP to turn to the Sena in a bid to consolidate its core vote banks. Thackeray’s repeated calls to fight solo stem from this confidence as much as it does from wanting to avoid a repeat of the ‘humiliation’ that it believes it has faced from the BJP in the last four years.
That is why Sena leaders now revel in how the tables have turned. They point to the many instances when Thackeray has faced the snub from Modi and his party, be it during the ‘Make in India’ expo inauguration in Mumbai or an event to lay the groundwork for the upcoming Navi Mumbai airport in February this year, in stark contrast to the BJP’s overtures now. Sena leaders have always been prickly about these matters, but the feeling is that the BJP, and especially its top bosses, have been cavalier in their treatment of their ally. In turn, Thackeray has lost no opportunity to take a swipe at Modi and Shah.
“Now, when they sense that the winds are slowly changing direction, Shah wants an alliance and their state leaders want to call on Thackeray,” mocks a Sena leader, preferring anonymity.
This, however, is where the Sena is caught in a quandary. It realises that it can no longer survive with the BJP but equally so grows the realisation that it might not survive without it too.
In Maharashtra, having fought every poll together for over two decades, the Sena and the BJP both derive support from similar voter groups. If the Sena and BJP were to fight the polls separately, especially when the Congress and the NCP enter a tie-up, the split in the votes would be costly. “In such a direct fight, many within our party feel that the Sena will have more to lose than the BJP because the latter has expanded its base while we haven’t,” says the Sena leader.
On the other hand, a wounded and angry Sena, as keen as it is to defeat the BJP, also realises that it might not find many takers in the larger anti-BJP front that the opposition might be seeking to build. An aide to Thackeray, not wishing to be named, confessed that the Sena’s right-wing politics might not find it many fans. “We realise that most of the opposition parties would not want to jeopardise their vote banks by including the Sena in the alliance. Similarly, we will also have a tough time explaining to our core voters that they might have to vote for parties that we have fought all our lives,” the aide said, pointing to the Congress.
The Sena’s dilemma is going to play out in the next few months. Much of the strategy, Sena leaders admit, will firm up only in the run-up to the polls. “Hence, Thackeray is trying to keep the cadre enthused by telling them that the Sena will go solo in the next year’s polls.”
Within the BJP, senior leaders in Maharashtra are irritated but not too worried about the Sena yet. According to one state vice-president, the Sena knows that it must enter into a pre-poll pact with the BJP if it wants to stay relevant in Maharashtra.
This BJP leader says that the BJP is also mulling over the option of offering tacit support to Thackeray’s cousin and rival Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray in the hope that his party gathers steam in the run-up to next year’s polls, thereby hurting the Sena, though the MNS has been steadily losing traction and influence in recent times.
Amidst all this, the BJP leader said that the near-unanimous opinion in the BJP was that the Sena was only trying to increase its bargaining power.
The Sena seems to have now sensed the need to step up to the fast-changing political dynamics nationally and respond to it. Clearly, then, the Palghar by-polls, irrespective of its result, will only be the beginning of the Sena’s change of strategy.
Its Gorakhpur moment
A by-poll can be hugely symbolic, the best example of it being the BJP’s defeat in Gorakhpur in March and how it mobilised the opposition. In Palghar, then, the Sena is looking for its own Gorakhpur moment.
If it manages to wrest the seat from the BJP, the party’s confidence in its ability to take on the BJP will sky-rocket. It might then also decide to go all-out against the BJP, stepping up its involvement in the larger opposition front that is being formulated. If that does not work out, the party is also toying with the idea of a tacit understanding with the Congress and the NCP on certain seats in the Lok Sabha polls next year.
But if the Sena loses, its confidence dented, it might be forced to recalculate its strategies. The BJP believes a defeat for the Sena will tame the party’s aggression and make it more amenable to an alliance in 2019. But Sena leaders insist that is unlikely. Thackeray’s aide confesses that the election is a tough one to win considering that the seat, erstwhile a part of the Dahanu parliamentary constituency, was always fought by the BJP under the Sena-BJP alliance since 1989. Hence, the Sena’s expansion in the region has stunted. “We are aware of this. At best, we win the seat. At worse, we lose but we still manage to mobilise our cadre in time for the bigger battle ahead, next year.”
One way or the other, Thackeray’s increasing hostility towards the BJP coupled with the overtures to the opposition might mean that the Palghar by-poll might be an inflexion point in the Sena-BJP relationship and could decide the Sena’s future plans.
Kunal Purohit is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.